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RUSA disqualifies candidates from elections due to rule violations

Last Thursday, Allison Smith, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, was sworn in as the Rutgers University Student Assembly president for the 16th session. – Photo by Chris Kim

On March 28, the Rutgers University Student Assembly opened voting for students to elect representatives to the Assembly’s 16th session.

The elections included candidates from three main tickets: Our Scarlet Promise, the New Leaf Coalition and Don’t Raise the Fee (DRF) as well as students running independently.

After elections closed on March 31, candidates were allowed to file appeals to the Assembly’s Elections Commission (EC) to report any violations of the election code.

Evan Feldman, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and EC chair, said the committee then forwards the appeals to the Assembly’s Judicial Council, which analyzes the evidence tied to each case and makes a final decision.

DRF submitted five appeals to the EC, with three of them describing violations of the Assembly's standing rules by Feldman as EC Chair.

The appeals stated that Feldman used his influence as chair to sway the election in certain tickets’ favor, specifically Our Scarlet Promise, and push for the passing of the election’s referendum questions.

DRF said in its appeals that Feldman’s personal relationship with Our Scarlet Promise’s vice-presidential candidate Lara Fougnies, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, affected the neutrality of his position and gave the ticket an advantage during the election.

Additionally, DRF stated that Feldman, who is also the chair of the Assembly’s Allocations Board and an author of the Allocations Referendum Act, endorsed the passage of both referendum questions, which violated his position as EC Chair.

In an interview with The Daily Targum, Feldman said that after he became EC chair, he withdrew from advertising or discussing the referendum questions.

He said that he was not involved in any of the Allocations Board’s endorsements of the referenda, including an email sent out on March 28 asking student organizations to vote “yes” on both questions.

Feldman said he delegated that responsibility to Allocations Board secretary Jonathan Bellinghausen, a Rutgers Business School sophomore, and Parliamentarian Bilal Yousuf Ahmed, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

“In my capacity as Allocations Chair and also as a co-author of the Allocations Referendum Act, I could endorse a certain outcome of the referendum,” Feldman said. “But in taking my position as (EC) chair, I completely relinquished myself from being in discussions of advertising the referendum so that I would not be biased in my outcome of the election.”

The EC also filed appeals against DRF, citing violations of Assembly standing rules and election code, such as campaigning in dining halls without authorization and spreading misinformation about other ticket’s stances on the referendum.

The appeals said that David Han, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore and DRF’s presidential candidate, and Nina Gohel, a School of Arts and Sciences junior who ran independently for SAS senator, handed out fliers in dining halls without administrative permission.

Laura Esteban, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and EC member, emailed Matt Ward, the unit manager of Livingston Dining Commons, to confirm whether the candidates had received permission to campaign with the dining hall, according to the appeals document.

Ward said that students were distributing DRF fliers in the dining hall on March 30 and that one of them was explicitly told not to do so, according to the document. The document also included images of Gohel and Han speaking to students in the dining hall while carrying papers.

In her response to this claim, Gohel said that she and members of DRF were not handing out fliers as claimed by the EC but rather using them as visual aids while speaking with students about voting in the election.

In an interview with the Targum, Han said he and Gohel walked around the dining hall with one flier each to inform students about the election, though he stated that both of the candidates were campaigning for themselves and not each other.

“We went around with a single flier and a QR code informing students about the current ongoing elections because a lot of students are currently unaware of what (the Assembly) is,” he said.

The EC’s appeals document also said that Han alleged that the Assembly wasted nearly $10,000 dollars on retreats and trips. These claims were deemed false by the EC and the Judicial Council, as many of those events did not take place and the events that did occur were reduced in magnitude, according to the document.

The Council ruled that, in addition to unfairly campaigning, DRF also committed libel by claiming to students, in person and via social media, that DRF was the only ticket that did not want to “raise the fee” by passing the referendum.

“As such, the court finds that the DRF committed libel in claiming that the other parties wanted to raise the fee," the ruling stated. "This libelous action was, anecdotally, a major, unfair advantage.”

Additionally, in its appeals, the EC said that Gohel also had unauthorized access to election results on GetInvolved throughout the voting period, which could have given her a significant advantage.

In her response, Gohel said that merely having access to the platform does not constitute evidence of wrongdoing, as she uses the platform consistently for other extracurriculars. The Judicial Council ultimately ruled that this claim of ill-gotten advantage was considered “not pertinent.”

Though the Council did not find that Gohel worked with DRF in order to undermine the elections, investigations on this matter may be conducted in the future, according to the ruling.

In a statement to the Targum, Han said Gohel told him that Assembly advisor Lori Smith accessed her data without notifying her and later gave personal information about Gohel to Feldman.

"Other Rutgers administrators have also confirmed that such an action taken by an advisor would be a violation of such policy," Han said. "No other student with potential GetInvolved access had their data pulled ... Gohel was intentionally and unfairly targeted."

In a statement issued on Saturday, former Assembly president Nikhil Sadaranganey, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, announced that Han and Gohel were disqualified from the Assembly’s election due to the aforementioned violations of election policy and affirmed that the spring 2022 election was conducted fairly.

Though Han said that, in past Assembly elections, presidential candidates who faced far more severe allegations of election misconduct had not been disqualified. He also said that the way the Assembly’s ran the election this semester contradicts the concept of democracy.

“I think a lot of the Assembly truly believes that this election was run fairly well — I think it was run horribly,” Han said. “I don't think there's ever been an election in (Assembly) history, since its initial conception in 2007, where it's been this biased, and there's been so many conflicts of interest.”

In his statement to the Targum, he also said that the Our Scarlet Promise ticket's appeal against DRF included falsified testimonies from certain students and that those students have since been reported to the University’s Student Conduct Office.

Last Thursday, the Assembly swore in School of Arts and Sciences junior Allison Smith and Fougnies from the “Our Scarlet Promise” ticket as president and vice president of the Assembly, respectively. Anna Chen, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore who ran with DRF, was inaugurated as treasurer.

During the meeting, the Assembly also held internal elections for several executive board positions. Han, who was running for Assembly secretary in a sign of protest, said that Ahmed called for a recess during the time allotted for him to speak.

Han said he was eventually removed from the meeting after Jason Yu, Internal Affairs chair and a Rutgers Business School senior, motioned for the Assembly to vote to eject him.

Additionally, Han said that armed officers were present at the meeting, which he believes discouraged students from attending the meeting in support of DRF. The police later left after he was removed from the meeting, he said.

"Several students who had followed the election and were concerned over a lack of transparency told me they did not attend over fears of police intimidation," Han said. "The officers left immediately after I was ejected, demonstrating a clear bias as to why they were invited."

In an interview with the Targum, Smith said she believes she and other Assembly members acted in a calm and collected manner during the meeting.

Regarding her upcoming term as Assembly president, she said she wants to encourage more bonding within the Assembly next year and that she hopes Assembly members can adopt a more communal environment rather than a polarized one.

“We really want to focus on making a tight-knit community this year and not having (cliques) occur — not having previous reservations come in because we were technically (competing) in the elections,” Fougnies added in the interview. “We want to do better for the student body.”

The Assembly has not yet responded to the Targum's request for comment.

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