By Daniel Houston
After more than a semester of collaboration and deliberation, the Student Senate last week approved by a two-thirds majority the last of a sweeping set of revisions to the student government electoral code.
These revisions will serve to make the elections process more responsive to student concerns and correct ambiguous language in the document that has put the electoral commission in uncomfortable circumstances in the past.
As chair this year of the senate operations and procedures committee, I made reforming the elections process a top priority on our agenda. Last year’s elections stretched the document to its limits, highlighting key areas of concern my committee aimed to address.
Perhaps the most prominent of these concerns was the role of disqualification in the elections process. Before Senate revised these passages, the electoral code allowed disqualification as a possible sanction for “[a]ny breach of the Electoral Code or additional rules, which the Electoral Commission deems necessary.” That means candidates could be disqualified for any number of hyper-specific infractions committed incidentally by every active campaign each election cycle.
What does this mean for the average student? The truth is, the power to disqualify is the power to disregard the student voice; the authority to disqualify candidates is the authority to overturn the outcome of elections. It was the consensus of my committee that such an extraordinary sanction requires extraordinary justification, something the code previously never provided.
The changes Senate approved last Thursday outline for the the first time clear parameters for the use of disqualification in elections. Disqualification can now only be used in circumstances in which a candidate has committed an extreme ethics violation or when the credible threat of its use is necessary to ensure all candidates comply fully with sanctions issued by the commission. This new standard is both practical from an administrative perspective and reasonable from a philosophical perspective.
In addition to addressing disqualification, Senate has removed restrictions on candidates’ ability to openly and respectfully address substantive differences between their platforms and those of their opponents, which had effectively disallowed debate or dialogue on issues students actually care about. Because of Senate’s efforts, future elections will be characterized by substantive debate, rather than the fear of being sanctioned for freely expressing one’s disagreement with another candidate’s vision.
Now, the last thing I and the other sponsors of this and other legislation wanted to communicate was any distrust for this year’s commission or its commissioner, Gregg Ortiz. This misperception made it all the way to the Senate floor on several occasions, and I can assure all parties involved that such distrust never existed.
I offer a historical example to illustrate my motivations: During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates grappled with basic issues of structural authority in a manner not so different from the Student Senate’s efforts to amend the electoral code.
It was understood by all that George Washington, a revolutionary general widely revered by the public, would be the first chief executive of the new government. So trusted was Washington that some delegates argued for granting the presidency expansive executive authority. But Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of looking beyond the immediate future when assigning grants of power to important offices.
“The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Franklin affirmed in a speech before the convention. “No body knows what sort may come afterwards.”
Likewise, I place my full confidence in the ability of electoral Commissioner Gregg Ortiz and his commission to guide the elections process fairly and efficiently in accordance with the code. He has been a valuable contributor to the revisions process and has always offered reasonable, constructive feedback. I and every other senator owe him a debt of gratitude for the time and energy he poured into helping us understand the operations of the commission and the nature of its responsibilities.
But Senate would be abdicating its responsibility to the students if we simply assumed all future commissioners will be of Ortiz’s caliber. Senate is obligated to establish clear requirements and expectations for all candidates and electoral officials, and our changes did so without infringing on the commission’s ability to efficiently administer the elections process.
So all that’s left to do is move forward into the election period with a sounder document, an able commission, and an understanding that while we may not always agree on the specifics of election processes, the highest priority for everyone involved is ensuring the student voice is put first in all elections to come.
Daniel Houston is a junior philosophy and political science major from Fort Worth.