SGA administration reveals proposed election code changes
SGA President Benjamin Rizk has officially unveiled his plan to change the election code in a sweeping bill simply known as the “Election Code Reform Act.”
Authored by Rizk, Senator Micheal Abel, Senator Lewis, and Senator Anahi Ortega, the Reform Act aims to “prioritize ensuring fair elections and that the voice of all students are heard.”
At seven pages, the bill is notably shorter than the 25-page Election Reform and Fairness Act passed under the 55th administration and the 30-page “Election Code Revision” bill passed under the 59th administration.
The election code was at the center of much of the controversy surrounding the 2023 SGA Elections, and Rizk seems determined to fulfill his promise to reverse many of the changes made under Joshua Martin’s administration.
The Cougar took a look through the bill to determine what’s changed, how it was influenced by previous administrations, and how the act is likely to impact future elections.
Term limits restored
The Reform Act restores the term limits for presidents and vice presidents that had been previously removed in the 59th administration’s Election Code Revision bill.
Term limits were initially put in place by the 55th administration in 2018 with the goal of “creating a more even playing field” in the words of former SGA president Cameron Barrett. Barrett also noted his concerns over the inherent advantage of incumbent candidates.
Martin, who was the first incumbent candidate to run in an SGA presidential election since 2018, claimed term limits were unconstitutional, and removed nearly all restrictions for students seeking to run for office.
While it remains to be seen if the current Supreme Court will seek to strike down term limits as unconstitutional, the Reform Act restores the same term limits put in place in 2018, with some additional changes.
“Sitting presidents (and vice presidents) who have served more than half their term are not eligible to run for president,” the bill states, in Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1 and 2.
Rizk’s bill adds limits for senators that were not present in the 2018 changes, specifying in Article 3, Section 2, Clause 4, that, “Sitting senators who have served more than a full term and more than half of a second term are not eligible to run for any SGA position.”
Following an election marked by controversial Supreme Court decisions, the Reform Act includes significant adjustments to how the court operates.
Article 8, Section 1, Clause 1-4 of the bill covers multiple areas that have the potential to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to rule on specific areas.
Clause 1 and 2 state that the Supreme Court must interpret the election code “in accordance with its plain text meaning,” and goes on to state that the Court “may not utilize conflicting precedent to disregard or fail to apply the plain text reading”.
This change was likely influenced by the allegations made by SGA Attorney General Tiffanie Gordon that the court, especially former Chief Justice Munoz, had misinterpreted language in the election code to overturn the election.
“This verdict was reckless, baseless, and a lie,” Gordon said in the complaint she lodged against Munoz. “I implore the next administration to ensure this does not happen again.”
Notably, Clause 3 declares that “in the case of a new election being ordered,” prior votes may not be thrown out “under any circumstances,” “unless explicit wrongdoing was determined by the courts and the Attorney General.”
This clause seeks to address the concern raised by some, including Gordon, former SGA Election Commissioner Tochi Okoli and Justice Tyler Garrett, that throwing out the entire election was a mistake.
Amidst the various complaints filed against Munoz, Gordon alleged that him and Martin had “side-stepped (her) and the election commissioner” by not bringing the case before the Attorney General.
Prior to his election, Rizk expressed frustration with the increased spending limits for candidates put in place during the 59th Administration.
“These changes were designed so that students are elected not based on their character or commitment, but through connections and money,” Rizk said in an interview prior to the election.
Article 6, Section 1 and 2 significantly alter rules surrounding campaign finance, including lowering spending limits to $500 for senators of a specific college, $750 for senators at large, and $1,200 for presidential candidates.
This marks a slight decrease from the limits set by the 55th administration, and goes hand in hand with other changes, including allowing donations using apps like Zelle and Venmo.
Additionally, Article 6, Section 2, would restore the 55th administration’s requirement that candidates report their donations “at fair market value” rather than stating what they paid for it outright.
This section, which was initially established by Barrett “to make it easier for poorer students to participate,” was eliminated by the 59th administration. If restored, it would theoretically reduce candidates’ ability to use discounts afforded to them by friends or family.
Finally, the Reform Act makes several major changes to how voting works, including restoring ranked choice voting in Article 5, Section 5 and 6.
This system, which was in place since 2018, allows voters to “rank” candidates from favorite to least favorite. Positions are awarded based on who receives the majority of “first choice” votes, and the candidate with the least votes is eliminated if there is no majority in the first round.
Martin’s administration instituted first past the post voting, a system where voters only vote for a single candidate for each position. While this system was in place prior to 2018, Barrett’s administration replaced it, out of fear that one party could sweep the senate.
The Reform Act also includes various changes to the Elections Commission in Article 2, Section 1, including requiring that the election systems be tested 24 hours after a sample ballot is approved and giving the election commissioner the ability to delay voting if errors are found.
While the Reform Act seems to fulfill Rizk’s promise to overhaul the changes made to the Election Code under Martin’s administration, this version is only the first read.