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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Whirlwind elections: Uncertainty over endorsements leads to AS election controversy at WWU

2020 AS general elections for Western student representatives fraught with accusations of election code violations, preferential treatment

This is the first in a five-part series about the 2020 Western Associated Students elections. Parts two, three, four and five will be published over the following days.

A lineup of past presidents with the current place of president in suspense.
A lineup of past presidents with the current place of president in suspense. // Illustration by Julia Vreeman

By Teya Heidenreich

When you go to Western’s Associated Students website and click on Student Governance, then click AS President, the page is blank. 

This is not an error. 

There is still no AS president at Western for the coming year, the result of a long, twisting road of an election that still has no resolution.

Since the failed election, the AS has altered its bylaws and is now taking candidate applications so they can appoint a president.

During the 2020 AS general elections, AS president candidates Nate Jo and Abdul Malik Ford accumulated 531 and 513 votes, respectively. To save you the math, that’s a difference of 18 votes.

Jo took office on June 13 at midnight.

But Ford and his supporters say it is more than possible that those 18 votes, if not more, were influenced by a biased system and candidates manipulating the rules. Others say Ford’s challenge of the election proceedings — and the students who served on the appeals board — undermined the elections’ integrity in a totally different way.

In any case, Jo and Ford agree on one thing: both candidates are calling for the end of the entire Associated Students system if it fails to improve.

The tale may be unique in its scope and consequences, but it isn’t unique in its beginnings. Last year’s election also involved grievances, heated hearings and multiple Election Code violations. This year, Ford filed grievances against three individuals. Last year, he filed grievances against nine.

Ford said in this year’s grievances that Nate Jo — along with Vice President for Sustainability-elect Nora Harren and Vice President for Governmental Affairs-elect Nicole Ballard — violated the AS Election Code. Specifically, Ford said Section 3.IV.e required clubs to hold meetings with all candidates before endorsing a candidate.

 At the June 4 grievance hearing, Jo, Harren and Ballard were disqualified from their positions for accepting and posting certain club endorsements on social media. 

“The argument is rooted in the fact that they posted, shared and reaped the benefits of that endorsement,” Ford said. “Had they not taken the effort to make posts about it and go on about it, I would have been like, all right. I guess that’s just how it is.”

Election Code section 3.IV.e. says that clubs “may sponsor events where all candidates for a particular position are invited to participate,” but “candidates have the responsibility to ensure that all candidates for a particular position are invited to participate,” or face a grievance.

The clubs that offered endorsements did not hold candidate events. Jo, Harren and Ballard appealed their disqualifications, saying the election code did not require a meeting, so the requirement to invite all candidates did not apply. Their disqualifications were overturned at a June 10 grievance hearing.

Later, on June 13, Jo resigned as AS president.

In their resignation, Jo, who identifies as a white-presenting Korean-American, apologized for a statement they made. In the statement, Jo likened election events —their opponent Abdul Malik Ford’s efforts to overturn the election results — to a white supremacist group overtaking the Elections Board and getting a winning Black student’s election overturned. 

Ford spoke against this comparison in his appeals rebuttal sent to AS Review.

“The inclusion of comparing current Black students to future white supremacists was extremely offensive, damaging, inflammatory, and not conducive to the task at hand,” he said.

But even that is not the whole story, which is complicated by AS rules and deadlines, who has the right to interpret them, and how candidates may speak up about suspected violations.

On May 5, Western’s Students for a Self-Operated Dining System club, also known as “Shred the Contract,” endorsed Jo, AS vice president of sustainability candidate Nora Harren and vice president for governmental affairs candidate Nicole Ballard, according to the appeals of Jo, Harren and Ballard

However, several days before on April 29, Ford had contacted Elections Coordinator Ina LaGrandeur.

“Hey, Ina, how do endorsements work?” Ford said in a text message to LaGrandeur.

“Hey Malik!” LaGrandeur said in a text. “Here’s how they work based on who you’re seeking it from: 

-Individuals: Can just endorse you, but can’t endorse using any official AS positions

-Clubs: Can endorse you at a meeting but all candidates running for that position need to also be invited to that meeting and given an equal opportunity to share their platform. After that members can either vote or just decide amongst themselves who they want to endorse.”

“So a meeting is necessary to endorse a candidate?” Ford said in a text.

“Yes,” LaGrandeur said in a text. 

A screenshot of the conversation is provided in Ford’s appeals panel document.

The candidates shared the endorsements on social media a week later, which Ford saw, according to the grievance decision document

Although the official grievance was filed on May 12, a week after the endorsements were announced and two weeks after he had posed the question, Ford said that he told LaGrandeur, the elections coordinator, about the endorsements from Shred the Contract on May 5. LaGrandeur consulted AS Board Program Coordinator Annie Byers, who sent an email to candidates clarifying endorsement guidelines in the election code.

Even after the email from Byers, Ford and the three candidates he challenged disagreed about whether clubs are allowed to make endorsements without holding a meeting and hearing from all candidates. After consulting with LaGrandeur, Ford believed the Election Code required a meeting before endorsing candidates. The others said the meeting was optional, and the rule was to invite all candidates if a club had one. 

Shred the Contract did not hold such a meeting before endorsing Jo, Harren and Ballard, according to all of the candidates. 

“I first heard of my endorsement when STC posted their official endorsements on their Instagram,” Ballard said in her appeal. “I did not seek out the endorsement and I do not think that the endorsement was unfair. In the 2019 special election for AS Vice President for Business and Operations, STC did not host a meeting to endorse Michael Protska. They had an online vote, the same as what happened in this situation, and no grievance was filed.”

Besides candidate endorsement, those involved in the 2020 AS general elections expressed concerns that the AS and election candidates broke timing guidelines for election procedures and that board members with a say in these procedures showed preferential treatment toward certain candidates. These were the controversies that sparked debate at the time. 

As of July 18, the situation still awaits resolution. 

Jo and Shred the Contract declined to speak with the Western Front. Harren and Ballard did not respond to requests for comment, and a request sent to LaGrandeur was answered by AS Communications Director Hunter Stuehm, who said LaGrandeur was no longer in her role and he would comment on her behalf. Wagler responded that her position with the Elections Board was over, and she wasn’t sure she’d have anything new to add, but would consider email questions. Wagler has not responded to a July 5 request for a phone interview.

This story is the first of a five-part series.

This has been part 1: Uncertainty over endorsements leads to AS election controversy at WWU

Part 2: AS timing rules repeatedly broken

Part 3: AS candidates say connections mattered

Part 4: AS proceedings said to contradict rules and fairness

Part 5: Amid controversies, position of AS president up in the air


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