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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Whirlwind elections: AS candidates say connections mattered

Students were concerned about preferential treatment and unfairness during Associated Students election proceedings 

This is the third in a four-part series about the controversy with the 2020 Western Associated Students elections. Parts four and five will be published over the following days. Read parts one and two

By Teya Heidenreich

A quote by Nate Jo saying "The final decision to disqualify candidates sabotaged the democratic vote of the students of WWU in the 2020 AS General Election"
//Graphic by Teya Heidenreich

This year’s Associated Students general election involved two legislative hearings. One disqualified Nate Jo, Nora Harren and Nicole Ballard from their newly elected AS positions. The other overturned the disqualification.

Abdul Malik Ford started the grievance process and the candidates he challenged started the appeals process. However, complaints of bias at both hearings came from both sides. 

“The final decision to disqualify candidates sabotaged the democratic vote of the students of WWU in the 2020 AS General Election,” Jo wrote in their appeal. “At least two members of the election board were known friends and supporters of Ford. Three members were added to the Elections Board after the elections ended and Ford filed a grievance. 

“It was clear that these individuals made up their minds long before the grievance hearing. Let us be clear: Two or three supporters of the losing candidate overturned the legitimate results of a democratic process.”

These three members of the Elections Board were Rukhsar Sadat, LaShaiah Dickerson and Zion Gemechu, according to Jo, Harren and Ballard’s appeals documents. Screenshots included in the documents showed that Sadat texted other students to tell them to vote for Ford and that Dickerson also endorsed Ford on social media.

Students were added to the board for representation, Ford said, after people realized that all members of the board were white.

“I personally was not a part of that, but there were people that were adamant that this representation is to be had,” Ford said.

Ford said, while he was not friends with these people, he had worked with them in his school involvement. This involvement included being a hall council executive, sustainability rep, resident advisor, Resident Hall Association member, member of Black Student Union and African Caribbean Club, and then president of Black Student Union, the latter two of which he did for two years. 

“I definitely have worked with a lot of those people,” Ford said. “At least two of the three that were added to the board, I’ve worked with them before, in whatever capacity.”

Ford said one of the people added was a student senator he had worked with and the other was part of the Black Student Union. He is no longer involved in the leadership of Black Student Union.

“There was evidence of one of those people on the grievance board messaging people and asking them to vote for me, which I personally did not know about,” Ford said. “But that came out and it was said, ‘These candidates should have been vetted.’ 

“I mean, it was obvious bias, but then it also came out that there [were] people on the original grievance board that openly endorsed the three candidates that I had the grievances for.” 

Ford and Jo ultimately agreed that the hearings were unfair.

“No one did a good enough job to vet and truly make sure that the people that were serving on the grievance board were impartial,” Ford said. “And that was a shortcoming that affected both sides of the grievance party.”

An unknown person raised concerns about the presence of two members on the appeals panel that reviewed the disqualifications. These were Selome Zerai and Trever Mullins. This was addressed in the appeals panel decision documents of Jo, Harren and Ballard. The complainant said Zerai, whose role on the appeals panel requires her to be objective, reposted a video by Ford on her social media with the caption “My 5eva President.” 

Zerai said this referred to Ford’s years-long presidency of the Black Student Union, according to the appeals documents, and that this was to comfort Ford after his loss rather than endorse him, since the elections were over. She added that the entire experience of grievance and appeal was flawed.

“My general impression is that it was biased,” Zerai said. “It seemed like people only remembered things when it was convenient. … It just seemed like there was a continuous effort to not have the grievances go through.”

According to the appeals panel’s ruling, the complaint against Mullins regarded the way Mullins questioned Ford during the appeals hearing. During the hearing, he said he’d been with Ford and known him since they were freshmen. Mullins speculated that, at the moment, his reason for phrasing his question that way was to show his care and support for Black students in light of recent anti-Black events. He said he had the same relationship with the other three parties involved in the hearing.

When Zerai learned about the complaint that her presence was a conflict of interest, she said she thought it was pretty weird.

“I’ve known Malik in a professional capacity since my freshman year,” she said. “We’ve worked together in BSU — we’ve worked together even this year after the election — on the Black student demands [made by Black students to demand their voices be heard after a forum at Western]. Malik is one of the people that consistently shows up for the Black community.

“So, yeah, I thought that was pretty weird that they wanted to include that because there are also screenshots of Lani with Nicole [Ballard] and Nora [Harren] saying, like, ‘Best friends’ as a caption. And saying that, like, she loves them so much.”

This referred to Noelani DeFiesta, another member of the Appeals Panel. DeFiesta also ran against Ford for AS President during the 2018-19 school year, when Ford filed nine grievances against AS employees and fellow election candidates, including DeFiesta. Three of the grievances, which addressed AS employees sending messages criticizing Ford’s level of support for LGBTQ+ students, were upheld. 

Last year, Ford put together an 18-page document titled “The Rigged Election” about his grievances during the 2018-19 election.

This year, Ford put a screenshot of an Instagram direct message conversation in his appeals document in which a student alleged that Breaker Chittenden, an AS Elections Board member, endorsed Jo, Harren and Ballard on his Instagram story.

Allegations of preferential treatment from AS members involved in grievance and appeals proceedings came from all sides. Beyond these allegations, candidates said the grievance process was unfair and did not follow the rules they all agreed to follow. 

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 third of a five-part series.

Part 1: Uncertainty over endorsements leads to AS election controversy at WWU

Part 2: AS timing rules repeatedly broken

This has been 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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