Last Sunday, College freshman Bill Ding was disqualified from the freshman Undergraduate Assembly elections for hanging six posters on the bridge at 38th and Locust Walk.
Ding had violated section VII.C.3 of the Nominations and Elections Committee’s Fair Practice Code, which only allows candidates to display one poster on each non-building object.
“It was just a few posters on the bridge … I didn’t know it was that serious,” Ding said.
A few posters don’t seem like a big deal, but it cost Ding his victory. Ding had earned 270 votes by the time polls closed on Friday, making him the third highest vote getter this election season. In short, he would have definitely secured a College representative seat.
An international student from China, Ding said he would have used the position “to speak on behalf of the many international students who don’t feel they can actually win these elections.”
But a petty set of rules will prevent his voice from being heard on the UA this semester.
It has been two years since the FPC has disqualified a candidate. I was also the subject of a controversial hearing on the online voting system in 2010. That same year, Wharton and College junior Vinny Pujji was disqualified from the Class Board executive vice-president race — even though he garnered the most votes — for violating the NEC’s poster policy.
The NEC’s rules are a source of distress for many candidates.
“I freaked out every time I put up a poster … you never know if this could get you disqualified,” said a College freshman and UA member who wished to remain anonymous due to collaborations with the NEC. The freshman added that it’s “easy for any candidate to fall into the trap of disqualification based on [the NEC’s] very tedious stipulations.”
However, Wharton and Engineering senior Alec Miller, who chairs the NEC, disagrees.
Miller explained that candidates are always given a warning before a violation is filed so they can rectify the situation. Ding, for example, was given fair notice to remove his extra posters. The NEC proceeded to file a violation after they received images submitted by an anonymous source. An FPC hearing was ordered, and the rest is history.
Warnings aside, the NEC makes an effort to clarify its policy through slideshows and its website. But the heart of the matter is this: the rules regarding posters are outdated and contradict the NEC’s mission to promote substantive elections.
Posters plastered around campus contain nothing more than superficial images and catchy slogans. As such, we shouldn’t base our decisions on them.
But year after year, the rules surrounding the number of posters that can be displayed on a given surface become a focal point of discussion, which trivializes these elections.
When I spoke to Miller, he said that “anyone who believes he or she can improve the FPC or the general election procedure should feel free to contact the NEC so we can revise our rules to make elections even fairer and less of a strain on candidates.” So I have taken him up on this offer by presenting a few suggestions:
The NEC should reduce the strictness and complexity of its poster policy. Candidates are never going to understand what it means to have one or too many flyers on a given surface. This arbitrary rule distracts from the substance of elections and leads to petty violations.
In the interim, rather than wasting time investigating poster policy violations, NEC members should confiscate any additional posters floating around campus. Since candidates have a limited budget of $50 to spend on campaign materials, including posters, they will learn the hard way to follow the rules.
Hopefully, the NEC pays attention to my advice. Penn Student Government can’t afford to lose diverse and unique voices like Ding’s over bureaucratic rules that don’t add any value our elections.
A former UA member who has since graduated once told me that in elections, the popular candidate always prevails. Whether the candidate is the smartest, however, is a stroke of luck.
By changing its policy, the NEC will help make student government smarter. If they fail to act, our elections will continue to be dominated by petty policies, politics and posters.
Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.
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