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CUSG holds a meeting on Oct. 25 on the CU Boulder campus. (Jesse Hughes/CU Independent)

After spring controversy, CUSG passes new election code in time for fall elections

Correction: The vote count approving CUSG’s new election code was 13 for, zero against and five abstentions.

Returning CU Boulder students may remember the events of the spring 2016 CU Student Government elections. Two of the elected tri-executives of the Revolution party, Colton Lyons and Marcus Fotenos, were disqualified by the CUSG Appellate Court for underreporting campaign expenditures, bribery and unauthorized tabling.

They were subsequently reinstated by Chancellor Philip DiStefano in an overturning of the Appellate Court ruling due to poor procedure of the hearings. In an open letter to the campus on May 5, DiStefano explained that because of mistakes made by the Election Commission — the committee that oversees how elections run — he was unable to “confirm that the evidence meets the clear and convincing standard required for a finding of misconduct.”

Those mistakes included failing to give all parties the right to cross-examination — a right that was unclear in the old code but is explicitly outlined in the new code — and failing to make individual rulings for the alleged offenses by each candidate.

Regardless of loyalty, all parties emerged from the incident understanding that the election code needed revision. The chancellor enforced that need — his letter required the code to be changed “both to clearly define the expectations of conduct for candidates and to ensure that the electoral process produces fair and equitable results.”

On Oct. 6, CUSG passed its revisions — 13 votes in favor and five abstentions — with an entirely new document. The committee in charge was made of five members: Colton Lyons, President of Student Affairs; Lucas Larson, Representative and Legislative Council President; Gabriel Elbert, Senator for Engineering and Legislative Council Parliamentarian; Rugh; and Brady Itken, member of Student Voices Count, who resigned from the committee after the completion of the first draft of the code.

Two of the people on the election code committee, Rugh from the Ally party and Lyons from the Revolution party, were involved in the spring election controversy. Lyons and the Revolution party were accused of multiple election violations, while Rugh and the Ally party were accusers. The new code addressed concerns with how the court proves violations — a centerpiece of the problems in the spring election — and redefines terms to make the rules clearer.

Many students may wonder why CUSG is important. CUSG manages a budget of about $23 million dollars each year, and is involved in managing funds for the UMC, the Environmental Center and the CU Rec Center, among others.

It also provides crucial funding for the Volunteer Resource Center and the Women’s Resource Center, and determines what student groups get funded by student fees — and CU has over 300 student organizations. CUSG funds come directly from student fees, which total about $336 dollars per semester for most undergraduates.

The parties worked together, but the road to the new code was rocky. The chancellor’s mandate that it be revised before the fall elections threatened the CUSG Constitution, which calls for elections to be held in October. Some CUSG members found this to be a troubling situation, as it could potentially take away their already limited autonomy.

“Personally I think that the chancellor should only intervene in CU Student Government when absolutely necessary,” said Austin Rugh, a representative and speaker of Representative Council. “I don’t know, in this case, if it was absolutely necessary. This was the priority for student government since the last election … I also don’t know if anything really would have changed whether he put this deadline on us or not.”

The committee had to work quickly after the start of the school year to pass a new code so that the elections could proceed legally. CUSG delayed the elections as much as the constitution allowed. Members of the committee estimate that they put in 60 to 70 hours of work, including consulting CUSG’s legal counsel twice.

“[The committee] wanted to be as transparent as possible,” Elbert said. “We wanted to make sure it was a bipartisan effort, and we also wanted to make sure that we weren’t breaking our constitution.”

A main goal was making the rules clear so that all students can understand them, Lyons said.

“Our biggest goal was to define things and really clear barriers that way so students, when they’re ready [to get involved with] student government, just have to read the document once and they understand exactly what [it entails],” Lyons said. “We tried to take out as much legal jargon as possible. In the old election code there was a ton of legal jargon so we tried to get rid of that and just have dictionary definitions.”

That’s important, because definitions caused a significant part of the controversy during the spring elections that led to candidates being accused — and disqualified for — breaking rules. The old code never fully clarified the terms tabling, polling, movements or even what the election is. One of the problems in the spring election was that one party may or may not have been polling incorrectly, depending on the interpretation of the old code.

The new code defines common terms used throughout, like election, campaigning and polling, and clarifies that “terms used throughout this code are subject to their dictionary definitions” when not defined specifically by the code.

Now, polling is defined as “the solicitation of an eligible voter to [vote] while at the same time providing the physical means to vote” via a device like a laptop or a tablet, and must be neutral except “during the time the Election Commissioner has permitted tables to be set up.” Tabling is now defined as “the use of a table to promote an Independent Candidate, Ticket or a movement.”

Previously, the definition of bribery was defined by the standard Colorado state law. In the new code, bribery is “defined as a prize, reward, gift or favor given or promised in order to influence another to vote for or against a particular candidate or ticket.” This does not count what the new code calls “Normal Campaign Materials” — buttons, pins, stickers, handbills, flyers, posters, informational sheets or business cards, when “approved by the Election Commission and given during official campaigning.”

The code outlaws bribery of any voters, as well as “bribing, conspiring with, claiming an endorsement of, or otherwise corruptly influencing” members of the commission, Appellate Court or anyone else involved with the election’s function.

The new code also lowered the burden of proof for infraction charges — or rule violations — from “clear and convincing evidence” to “preponderance of the evidence.” The old standard caused controversy in spring, as potential witnesses of alleged bribery feared retribution from the Greek organizations they were a part of, since the infractions occurred within those organizations. 

“One thing that happened in the spring is that members of the public who could provide testimony of infractions were part of Greek organizations, and the leaders of their Greek organizations were supporters of the tickets who committed infractions,” Rugh said. “Obviously we had a big problem getting witnesses to testify. We can request witnesses, but they don’t have to [show up] … We can’t subpoena anyone, so we can’t acquire emails or any sort of communication. For any infraction to [be proven], we just have to get lucky, and someone can come forward and say ‘yes I saw that,’ or provide proof of it, which is hard to come by.

There are multiple chapters of the new code that have similar content to the old code, and its organization is similar as well. But the new document is distinguishable by its increased clarity and organization.

“We started trying to do amendments and just realized everything was so interconnected that we really needed to start from scratch,” Larson said. “The election code that was being used had only been amended since it was introduced in the ’70s, and this is the first time that it’s a whole new code.”

A few chapters are entirely new or contain significantly edited content, most of which was done in response to the conflict of the last election. Chapter 6 defines the difference between tickets and independent candidates, giving them both equal rights and responsibilities with regards to declaring their candidacy.

Chapter 7 is entirely new, laying out the amount of infraction points warranted by certain infractions and setting the limit of infraction points to 10 per candidate — 10 is the amount that gets a violator kicked out of office or disqualified from the elections. The content of this chapter was inspired by the University of California at Berkeley’s student government, which operates independently of its university.

“If you look at the old code, there’s no real organized way of knowing what infractions are worth how many points,” Elbert said. “We really liked the way that Berkeley divided up their infractions. It was organized where you have disqualifiable violations, major and then minor. The point values are different for theirs — ours are more in line with our previous code, where 10 infraction points equals a disqualification.”

A notable policy the new code preserves from the old code is the practice of allowing candidates to engage in polling — flagging down potential voters while also giving them the means to vote — when the Election Commissioner allows for tabling, which may seem in conflict with the commonly accepted idea of preventing electioneering while a voter votes. Electioneering is commonly defined as any actions that may influence a voter, and all 50 states have laws preventing the practice within a certain distance of polling stations.

The current commissioner, Aaron Chesler, says that because of the nature of online voting in CUSG elections, it would not be possible to enforce a ban on candidates potentially influencing voters when they vote.

“It is very clear how hard it is to enforce and I think it would just take different forms,” Chesler said. “You wouldn’t see tables I sanctioned with laptops on them. Instead, I fear, it would be more covert and illusive. One thing to remember, is that all the tables we authorize for the candidates to use, I know where they are, I can regularly make rounds and check on them to make sure that candidates aren’t polling unfairly or are violating other parts of the code. We ban this, I would expect to see polling pop up in other places where we could view it less.”

Some students may feel qualms about the quickness of the code’s revision process in light of the spring elections.

“If we had to do it over again, I think the overhaul should have taken a longer period of time,” Itken said. “What should have happened is that campus should have been included in it as a whole, just to keep it transparent so that way the way the code was written, everyone had some input on it.”

The fall CUSG elections, held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, were the first test of the code’s effectiveness. Chesler appointed three Assistant Commissioners to help with that election and already has used the code to facilitate events such as the candidates’ meeting, town hall and debate.

“[DiStefano’s intervention] showed that there was something fundamentally flawed with [the old code],” Chesler said. “It presented a barrier to people that wanted to get interested and invested in a way that this [new] code has less of … so they’re not pulled down or constrained by these documents, but actually they can use them to bring themselves up with a position like mine.”

Contact CU Independent News Reporter Lucy Haggard at lucy.haggard@colorado.edu.

Contact CU Independent Editorial Manager Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu, and on Twitter @ArnoldEllis_.

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