Confusion reigns as SGA Senate elections postponed

At a glance:

  • In a move reserved for the Senate, Director of Elections Brigitte Kelly canceled Senate elections on March 26. The SGA Senate voted on April 16 to hold Senate elections from April 23-27. 
  • Student body presidential elections were still held because the president-elect Michael Davis needs to be present at future Board of Trustees meetings when he is sworn in in June.
  • Conflict between the Senate, Kelly and the advisers came to a head, which caused a meeting between a senator and the advisers. 
  • Student body president-elect Michael Davis said he is looking forward to “getting a lot of people involved in SGA Senate elections in the fall and still being productive over the summer

During a normal spring semester, the Student Government Association would have held Senate elections concurrently with the presidential election. But this is far from a normal spring semester. 

Conflict over SGA constitutional authority and miscommunication between different SGA factions led the Senate to vote to hold elections in late April, despite the director of elections calling the election off in late March. 

After a meeting ordered by SGA advisers, Jay Gibson, a senator who helped spearhead the vote to hold Senate elections, said he will work with the incoming SGA administration on the future of elections.

“(The SGA advisers) informed myself and President-elect Michael Davis that Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs J.J. Brown has required that all further campus-wide elections, including SGA elections, be postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the spring semester finals,” Gibson said.

Brown said he has “not issued any internal memo or other communication prohibiting campus elections.” 

“The decisions about the SGA election process are made by SGA, and I support what they decided and approved for this year’s procedures,” Brown said. “In several conversations I had late last week, I indicated my support for the procedural decisions they have made because of COVID-19’s impact on our campus.”

Cathey said he and Brown talked about their support for SGA’s self-governance and that is what he was conveying in the meeting. 

“We recognize SGA faces significant challenges as they work to implement their policies and procedures during a global pandemic, and we want them to have the advising support they need as they work to manage their election process during unprecedented times,” Cathey said. 

He also said that the “we will continue” to focus on their primary goal of supporting students as they navigate the challenging times. 

Gibson was the only senator who met with the SGA advising team Monday afternoon to discuss  elections. He said he is putting together a problem-solving group within the SGA to navigate “these unprecedented times.

Cathey also said he appreciated the conversation with Gibson and “his support given the current circumstances.”

“I know that we all look forward to launching elections at the beginning of fall semester with the intent of forming a full SGA senate,” Cathey said. “I would also like to extend a genuine thank you to (elections) court chair, Olivia Mead and director of elections, Brigitte Kelly, for their leadership of this extended election process in the midst of so much change.”

Postponement of Original Elections 

On March 26, Kelly postponed the Senate elections in an email to candidates.

“Due to the complications of running a Presidential and Vice Presidential Election online and due to lack of manpower (I am the only one facilitating the election), it is the decision of the Director of Elections to postpone Senatorial Elections for the 54th Session,” Kelly wrote.

She also wrote she consulted with SGA advisers to make the decision and directed questions to them.

According to SGA’s constitution and election bylaws, the director of elections has the power to oversee an election, but not to cancel one.

Some senators expressed frustration and felt the decision was a “slight on the Senate,” according to an email Cathey sent senators.

Cathey explained that the decision was made because of students not being on campus and COVID-19 creating uncertainty.

“Considering these factors, the default decision was to postpone the overall election process to early-fall term,” Cathey wrote.

SGA held the student body presidential election anyway because the president sits on the Board of Trustees and is typically sworn onto the board in June.

“Representation by a student on the Board of Trustees is not allowed at many institutions, and there are those in our own state who would prefer it not be allowed here,” Cathey wrote. “With the significance of this role in mind, the decision was made that the president and VP positions need to be decided now.”

Coming to a Head

On April 20, after the conclusion of the student body presidential election, the debate over Senate elections dates came to a head. 

In her March 26 notification on Senate elections, Kelly said, “All questions and concerns regarding this change should be directed to the advisers, you may CC me but I will be focused on facilitating another election during this period of time and may not respond.” 

“I received zero communication from any senators in the three weeks following the notification that the Senate elections would be postponed until the Fall semester for reasons relating to COVID-19 and the confusion/fear associated with the pandemic,” Kelly said in a statement. 

The three-week period Kelly mentioned ended April 16. 

However, multiple senators said they attempted to communicate with Kelly after the Senate voted to hold Senate elections

Gibson sent an email to Kelly on April 18 that explained the results of the Senate vote on April 16. He also carbon copied her on an email about the runoff dates and texted her on April 16. He also said they talked on the phone April 15. 

Jason Turcios, a general senator, said he contacted Kelly on April 14 via text and then emailed her, and the advisers, on April 17 to follow up on senate declaration forms. He said he did not receive a response from Kelly or the advisers. 

Cathey carbon copied Kelly in an email replying to senators’ concerns on March 31. 

Kelly said as director of elections she has the “constitutionally enumerated duty to facilitate Senate elections.”

The constitutional duty Kelly referred to is Section 5 of the constitution, which grants the power to “oversee all administrative aspects of ASU-SGA elections, including the presidential/vice presidential election, homecoming election, and any senatorial elections.” 

After the Senate voted to hold the election, some senators, like Cam Thompson, were under the impression that Senate elections were happening on the dates voted. 

Walt Grayson, a former member of SGA who chaired the rules committee and helped lead the effort to restructure the bylaws, said the only way election dates can be set is from the Senate. 

“The student body has empowered the Student Senate with absolute discretion to decide when elections will take place. Any election conducted outside of these constitutional and statutory parameters is illegitimate,” Grayson said. “Times of national crisis call for difficult decisions, and decisions of this gravity should be decided by the Senate via electronic meeting.” 

The power Grayson said the Senate has comes from Article 2 of the Senate Standing Rules. 

Grayson also chaired the elections court and is on the Association of Student Governments for the UNC System while he attends law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also part of the UNC honor court. 

Joanna Faith Williams, a former director of elections and vice chair of the elections judicial court when Grayson was chair, said the SGA constitution is a recognized contract with the students on App State’s campus. 

“The failure to uphold these statutes by anyone involved in facilitating or advising these elections would contribute to a ‘smoke and mirrors’ game that not only makes someone with my level of experience question the rationale behind it, but also gives even more an air of mystery to an organization that is already felt far from reach by many in the student population,” Williams said. 

She also said that because the Senate elections did not take place during the presidential elections it was “a flagrant violation of the very basic provisions described within Article 7, Section 2 of the Constitution.” 

That section of the constitution states, “Senatorial Elections will take place concurrently with the President/Vice Presidential election, with the exception of seats designation for freshman and University College.” 

While Gibson works to create a “problem-solving group” within SGA, Davis said he is looking forward to “getting a lot of people involved in SGA Senate elections in the fall and still being productive over the summer.”