This year’s Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) general election, which concluded on Monday morning after problems with the polling website caused two voting deadline extensions, has raised questions about whether it is time for updates to the system and the rules that govern elections.
Danny Mejia-Cruz ’16 was elected BSG president. The six vice presidents will be Michelle Kruk ’16, Luke von Maur ’16, Andrew Millar ’16, Wylie Mao ’18, David Levine ’16 and Kevin Hernandez ’18.
The polls opened at 8 a.m. last Friday and were intended to close at 8 p.m. on Sunday. On Sunday around 7 p.m., Vice President for BSG Affairs Charlotte McLaughry, who oversees all elections, sent an email to all students reminding them that there was one hour left. This email led to a spike in voter engagement in the final hour, which turned problematic as the 14-year-old polling website was not equipped to handle the heavy traffic.
“Votes flooded in and the system crashed,” said BSG President Chris Breen ’15. “We tried to get a hold of [Information Technology], but it’s a Sunday night—they’re not around.”
In response, the BSG Executive Committee extended the voting deadline to 10 p.m. After another issue with the polling website, the executive committee decided to close the election at noon on Monday.
“We just figured it’d be better off to have people be able to vote and have a more representative sample size rather than undersell,” Breen said.
BSG bylaws state that elections must last for at least 24 hours, but contain no stipulation about a maximum time for polls to be open. The extended election deadline resulted in a record-breaking voter turnout of 68 percent of the student body.
Justin Pearson ’17, one of the presidential candidates, said that although he understood why the executive committee extended the deadline and was happy about the increased turnout, it still made for an unrestful night.
“By the time the deadline had come, there’s sort of a relief that it was over and you’ll know soon enough what the results were,” said Pearson. “And so for it to be not over definitely carried a weight into Monday as a whole and so I think that was an added burden going into the week, but hopefully it will be the last time candidates have to [feel like that].”
Information Technology (IT), which built the polling website, was aware that the voting system was old and in need of updates, but did not anticipate the crashes.
“It’s run well for 13 years,” said Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis. “It kind of went off the radar. We didn’t pay much attention to it—it does what it’s supposed to do.”
In response to the malfunctions that occurred during this election, Davis said he plans to meet with BSG to design a new app-based polling system.
Dissemination of vote margins
While the polls crashed, another issue began to take shape. Two of the three presidential candidates said that they were notified of the vote totals on Sunday evening before the race was over.
Both of the frontrunners of the presidential race, Robo Tavel ’16 and Mejia-Cruz, stated that they had been informed of the numerical margin of the race before the polls closed. Pearson said that he was not given this information.
“I didn’t find out until we got the email about who had won,” Pearson said. “Right now, the way we have it set up as I understand it, no one is told that information.”
It is unclear whether candidates running for other positions on the BSG Executive Committee were informed of vote counts or margins before the polls closed.
Although BSG bylaws do not state whether vote counts or margins can be shared while the election is still taking place, Tavel said he found it unusual.
“It seemed unusual in that I was not expecting to get any information, but I had no idea what the other candidates were aware of,” he said. “It was just sort of out of the blue right before the election ended and then the polls happened to crash, so it got a little hectic, but it was not information that I asked for or wanted, really.”
Director of Student Activities Nate Hintze said that he had heard rumors of margins being shared with candidates, but did not know about this until after the election was over. He said he is unsure of what actually happened.
“I do know that people make things up in order to get people to vote for them or put that pressure out there, so I don’t know how much is truth and how much is just kind of campus lore,” he said.
According to Breen, the only two people who had access to vote counts while the polls were still open were Breen and McLaughry.
“What they’ll see is that same ballot with the numbers next to the names,” said Director of Systems Infrastructure Adam Lord, who built the polling system along with another member of IT 14 years ago.
McLaughry said in an email to the Orient that no BSG policy exists to prohibit or require the release of results before the polls close.
Former BSG Vice President for Academic Affairs Jordan Goldberg ’14 said that the practice of sharing vote margins was not uncommon during his time on the BSG. He noted, however, that individuals directly involved in the election were usually not given this information.
“I definitely recall a lot of whispering and hushed excitement among the BSG nerds,” said Goldberg. “I distinctly remember a past BSG president whispering to me the exact numbers at one point but I was not involved in the election. But I have not heard of a candidate being told an explicit number. I’ve heard of people being told if it is a very close margin.”
Speaking to the issue of sharing numbers with some candidates and not others, Goldberg said, “I don’t know what the margins were, but regardless, that sets a bad precedent. I don’t really think you can be giving people that information at the exclusion of someone else involved in the race who could ostensibly benefit from that information.”
This has prompted discussion among candidates and members of BSG over whether a new policy about sharing vote counts or margins should be added to the BSG bylaws.
“I think it was an honest mistake, and it was not to my detriment,” said Tavel. “I was not harmed by what was out there, but in the future I think that it’s important that that information is kept under wraps until the polls close.”
Goldberg said he would like to see a rule that established some consistency, whether it meant full disclosure for candidates or not.
“I think it would be a good rule to either not tell candidates voting numbers or all candidates must be apprised of voting numbers,” he said.
Campaign spending limits
At its November 12 meeting, BSG voted nearly unanimously to create a bylaw that limits campaign spending at the Copy Center to $12 per candidate. The bylaw also prohibits candidates from spending additional money out-of-pocket.
However, BSG and Student Activities were unprepared to regulate the new allotments. The candidates purchase the advertising material for their campaigns using a BSG project code, rather than their personal identification numbers.
“With a project code, they don’t break it down by individual printing jobs,” said Hintze. “At the end of the month, we just get a lumped sum from the printing center that just says ‘Over the course of the month, you spent $100.’ That also includes posters that the BSG will print as well as some student club printing... It’s really going to be hard to break that down into a way that people actually have a clear picture of if there was fraud of some sort.”
This year for the first time in recent history, two candidates—one for BSG president (Mejia-Cruz) and one for vice president for BSG affairs (Emily Serwer ’16)—decided to campaign together. According to Mejia-Cruz, the candidates combined their printing allotments, allowing them to print twice the number of posters as opponents who ran alone.
“If someone’s spending $24 it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s 120 posters as opposed to 60, which can make a big difference, especially in the general election,” said Riley O’Connell ’18, who ran for vice president for BSG affairs.
Some voiced scepticism over whether posters make or break an election.
“I tend to think, whatever,” said Goldberg. “I can’t imagine it would affect the results that much—the Union and the dining hall are pretty habitually plastered by each candidate regardless.”
“I think the future BSG is going to have to look at how funding is allocated because historically it’s not really common for candidates to run on a ticket, and that’s not to say it’s against the rules, but it offers candidates a way to increase their budget,” said Tavel. “I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the future unless BSG addresses that fact.”
Hintze emphasized how hard it is to come up with official rules that address every possible loophole.
“As soon as you say, ‘you can’t do this,’ then somebody might think, ‘oh, well I can do this and so I can’t do this,’ and eventually you’ll have a rulebook that’s a full encyclopedia of everything that you can and cannot do,” he said. “If someone was paying people for votes, I think that would be more egregious than if somebody may have printed a couple more posters than maybe they should have. But...if there is an issue, I would advise the student government to look at it as a whole and [whether] it is something that would have really changed the election one way or another.”
Goldberg echoed that sentiment.
“Not that BSG is always doing the most pressing things, but there are probably better things to worry about than bylaws and elections,” he said.
Breen said that BSG is committed to ensuring that all elections are run fairly.
“We try to run the elections as fairly as possible,” he said. “It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it’s the system that’s in place and if they want to make any adjustments in the future, we welcome them to do that, and we’re always supporting better ways to create fair and better elections. Hopefully that starts with not having the system break down because of the flood of votes or the Internet.”
—Garrett Casey and Nicole Wetsman contributed to this report.