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journalism with a policy backbone
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What the hell happened: UNC's 2017 general election series

Chapter One: The carcass of last year's botched election lingers


 
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For the first time since 2009, the Board of Elections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill disqualified two student body president candidates for minor campaign violations last February — delaying the vote by over a month and naming Elizabeth Adkins as SBP in a 4% voter turnout, the lowest in at least twelve years.

A few weeks ago, student congress passed its first stab at legislation designed to improve future election processes. But the new regulations still allow for easy disqualifications — a democratic shortfall that UNC’s legal scholars, international elections experts, student government officials, and past student body presidents have all told me is the most critical reform facing the student code.

Andrew Reynolds added UNC’s lax criteria for disqualifying students are “the biggest pile of BS you could possibly imagine.”

“In a student body president election, unless somebody goes out and kills the other candidate, you should let them run,” Reynolds said, “And even then, I’m not sure whether you should disqualify them, because you should let the voters decide whether murder is an attribute that you want your president to have.”

The Daily Tar Heel (DTH) has also been criticized for neglecting the events of last year. Despite its reputation for thorough coverage on student body president elections, the paper didn't explain the many staples of the historic race last spring. Except for a single article quoting some campaign members, the shortfalls of the student code and how they impacted disqualifications, the alleged bias of the Board of Elections and how it translated to their decisions, the resulting campus outrage, and the undocumented “threats” of administrative involvement that conveniently ended the litigation process — all went unexplained, or altogether unreported.

Take the most critical campaign violation in each candidate’s case: “falsification.” The Board of Elections (BOE), a governing entity for student elections, disqualified both frontrunners Matthew McKnight, current senior, and Joe Nail, current junior, mostly on these grounds. Without any context, the term, “falsification,” conveys dishonesty and deceit. The Merriam-Webster definition includes mutilating or obscuring information, so as to “conceal a theft.”

But the student code allows for an altogether different definition that doesn’t require “intent." In BOE hearings, when candidates miscited a figure, referred to a timeline in error, or even used a different definition from the board’s later stated preferences, the BOE counted these accidental “misrepresentations” towards falsification, the most punitive violation category. Even when the board admitted such instances were in fact accidental, a candidate could be charged with falsification to the fullest extent of the point range. McKnight was dealt 8 such points; Nail was dealt 10; and disqualification from the race only requires 10 total violation points. The DTH never explained falsification in these terms, despite several articles on the subject, or the critical role it played in both McKnight and Nail’s cases.

Instead, the editorial board placed most of the blame for the botched election on the candidates themselves.

In March, opinion editor Tyler Fleming said the paper couldn’t issue an endorsement for the remaining candidates. Cited reasons include time constraints and lack of information, but Fleming’s piece mostly addressed attitude problems.

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“The animosity and pettiness of this year’s election season is why I have decided the editorial board cannot tell you who to vote for,” Fleming said, “I also encourage everyone to not move past the anger and shame you may feel about this election until we see real change.”

He also encouraged readers to keep in mind members of student government, namely the Nail and McKnight teams, “got us into this mess in the first place.”

The DTH also hasn’t mentioned the new election rules passed by student congress this year, or followed up with the students it dismissed as petty and self-serving.

They also declined to comment on this piece.

For the past six months, Nail, McKnight and their teams have been forced to stomach an unsatisfying justice system — the student supreme court would not hear their cases — only to defend themselves again to a campus under the impression they did something morally apprehensible. Something worthy of “falsification” charges, disqualification, denied appeals, and administrative involvement.

Certainly, mistakes were made. But at the end of the day, Nail and McKnight were disqualified, and publicly scorned, for racking up about 10 points’ worth of inaccuracies in BOE hearings and emails, technology violations, and bad luck. That's it. 

 


What the hell happened: UNC’s 2017 general election series seeks to explain how that could be possible. Stay tuned for Chapter Two: the nitty-gritty.

 

As reported by Blake Dodge on Medium