It’s 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27 — the end of voting in Kansas State University’s student body presidential election — and candidate Jansen Penny, surrounded by friends and campaign supporters at Kite’s Bar and Grill, is waiting for the final word on whether or not he’s been elected student body president at K-State.
Election night watch parties are a tradition for Student Governing Association campaigns. When Penny, senior in industrial engineering, and running mate Ali Karamali, junior in chemical engineering, finally hear the results of the election, they embrace each other. They’re now the student body president-elect and vice president-elect at K-State, and while their work ahead is cut out for them, this night is a celebration of their victory after months of preparation and lead-up to the election.
Penny and Karamali had their victory, and the word “victory” typically indicates a triumph over a loser — someone who failed to receive more votes than the winner.
This year, that was not the case. Penny did not receive more votes than any other candidate on the ballot simply because there were no other candidates on the ballot.
This was the result of a week of SGA infighting and controversial hearings on alleged election violations, during which Ryan Kelly, junior in communication studies and Penny’s sole competing candidate in the primary, was disqualified after he declined to comply with previous election sanctions imposed on his campaign and even sought to be cited for additional violations.
The 2019 election was the second consecutive election cycle marred by a candidate disqualification after last year’s election saw the brief disqualification and eventual reinstatement of student body presidential candidate Paloma Roman, then-sophomore in athletic training. In that instance, a special election was ultimately called, but Roman lost.
However, as Penny prepares to assume the position of president, Kelly — joined by dozens of other SGA members and students disappointed with the elections process — is calling for a review of the SGA election regulations.
Elections reform is becoming an increasingly popular topic among SGA members, but what remains to be seen is how much momentum that desire will keep as the senate term wraps up and new senators are sworn in.
A call for change
In reflecting on his campaign’s actions before being disqualified, Kelly said he would not have done anything differently.
“All of our actions that we took during the campaign were very intentional,” Kelly said. “In the beginning to be elected, and toward the end to expose the structural inequities we have present in our election system at K-State.”
Pressed for specifics, Kelly said it is difficult to point out specific areas to address in election regulations.
“What I will say is what I know, and that is right now, our election system is not one that works for students, that uplifts our student body and empowers them to run for positions in office,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t work with them. It doesn’t work for them. I think we need to move our election system to a place where they aren’t just an enforcement mechanism, but they are also an empowering mechanism.”
Bill Harlan, SGA adviser and graduate student in data analytics, said he was not aware of any particular regulation that would make it more difficult for any student or group of students to run for an SGA office.
However, Harlan said that during his tenure as adviser, SGA has continually focused on making sure regulations are clear to students and regulations keep up with changes in the way campaigns are run.
“The practice of running in an SGA election is constantly changing,” Harlan said. “There’s new ideas and new methods that come up for reaching out to students. The regulations also have to keep up with those changes in technology and changes in practice.”
During an impassioned speech in a student senate meeting — shortly before many SGA members attempted to remove elections commissioner Kristen Schau, junior in political science, from office on the day of Kelly’s disqualification — student body president Jordan Kiehl, senior in industrial engineering, implored senators to reflect on the rules, rather than any one SGA member’s performance.
It was up to current SGA members to create the change they wanted to see through legislation, which Kiehl said they had failed to do after last year’s messy election in which Kiehl herself received and filed violations of her own.
One area to address, Kiehl said, is some of the vague language used in current regulations, which she said is intentional to help address situations SGA can’t anticipate.
“We can take a look at the actual statutes and see how we can make them clearer, but often times the vagueness is built in to account for situations we cannot anticipate,” Kiehl said in an emailed statement. “For example, there are no rules surrounding social media, so violations this year related to that had to be interpreted from the intent of the existing statues.
“I don’t know for certain what the exact changes will be, but there is a group that will be exploring possible changes,” Kiehl continued. “We usually try to make any modifications by the end of the term. That being said, more can always be done next term before elections begin again.”
The issue of interpretation
With graduating members and freshmen filling ranks, turnover can be an issue in any student organization — but in a decision-making body like SGA that controls millions of dollars in student fee allocations, turnover poses an issue with making and applying consistent judgments.
“The fact that the rules are interpreted by a new elections commissioner and committee is something that really can’t change just because it is a position that is often times filled by a senior who will be graduating, or an individual who decides not to do it for a second term,” Kiehl said. “It is a time-consuming position that has to be top priority in a student’s life with all the violations and hearings with a time clock on them.”
Ian Boyd, Kelly’s campaign manager, junior in political science and former student support director before he resigned in protest of the election regulations this year, said different interpretations by new elections commissioners every year cause problems.
“Not [only] are the interpretations based off of precedent, but often what the individual interprets that to mean; that in itself causes problems,” Boyd said. “Especially in the Kelly-Spencer campaign — Ryan Kelly was the speaker of the student senate, one of the biggest experts in statutes. We had the former elections commissioner, we had the treasurer of SGA and we still didn’t get it right, so that is something that is obviously wrong. The people not understanding the statutes isn’t the problem, [it’s that] they offer so much range that creates this problem.”
Boyd proposed that instead of treating the elections commissioner as a prosecutor, that role should instead look more like a facilitator, and election regulations should be made clearer to cut down on “wiggle room” for how the elections committee wants to interpret certain regulations each year.
In the past few years, there has been a greater level of competitiveness in elections than in years prior, Harlan said, which has made violations look a little different. He attributed that, however, to changes in the actual situations themselves rather than sweeping changes in the way election regulations are interpreted.
“The thing that varies the most is how the campaigns and students choose to enforce the regulations themselves,” Harlan said. “Some campaigns choose to file no complaints no matter how severe of violations they might see. Some campaigns might choose to file everything that they see. And then there’s the dynamic of once a violation is filed, you might see a whole bunch come out, like a dam broke and here comes the flood.”
One big hurdle for any potential election changes to overcome will be the simple matter of keeping people’s attention on the issue, especially with about a month left in the current student senate’s term.
“There are 32 days left in our term, so for those next 32 days, I hope to keep the pressure on for myself and the rest of SGA to address the concerns with elections,” Kiehl said. “Personally, I will help the committee with whatever they need to make the best changes moving forward.”
While Penny said he has not made any specific changes to his platform in response to the election turmoil this semester, he said the elections committee, the Student Tribunal and other SGA members were working to amend the elections code.
Potential areas of clarification or change are specifying how to financially report services donated to campaigns and what occurs when a presidential candidate is disqualified before the general election, Penny said.
In the end, any change to SGA regulations, as with all student senate legislation, would have to be student-driven, Harlan said, which makes it difficult to know exactly what changes might come.
“It’s hard to keep momentum for changes to elections once elections happen,” Harlan said.