For the first time in Penn Student Government history, the Nominations and Elections Committee will postpone the spring Undergraduate Assembly and Class Board elections to fall 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The NEC announced on Tuesday night in an email to the Class Board and UA that the spring student government elections would be postponed. NEC Chair and College Senior Olivia Crocker said the NEC initially planned to hold an election virtually from April 6 to April 8 to elect the UA members and Class Boards for 2020-2021. Crocker said the NEC, however, decided to violate their own bylaws and postpone the elections to prioritize student health and ensure a fair election.
Crocker said after discussions with the Office of Student Affairs and UA leadership, the NEC determined that the postponement could go forward — despite violating the NEC bylaws — due to the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent campus closure. The NEC’s bylaws read that the spring election must be held at least two weeks before the beginning of the final exam period in the spring semester.
“Rules are in place for a reason, but it's also about trying to think about how we accommodate students,” Crocker said. “At this time we just don't think it's best to try and hold elections and follow the letter of the law put forth in [the bylaws].”
Crockers said after candidates began collecting signatures on Monday, some candidates expressed concerns that they could not focus on campaigning given the stressful transition away from Penn's campus amid the coronavirus outbreak. Crocker added that candidates also worried that incumbent UA members had an advantage, because new candidates would not be able to campaign as effectively online as they might have been able to on campus.
“[A virtual election] doesn’t put all of our candidates on the same page,” Crocker said.
On March 11, the University announced all classes would move online beginning March 23 and asked students to leave campus to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Some students were left with nowhere to go after Residential Services denied their applications to remain on campus.
The NEC also considered the possibility of low turnout and not enough candidates running, which would result in special elections to fill vacant seats in the fall, Crocker added.
In February, the NEC held a special election to fill the vacant UA Nursing seat following a resignation — but only 17 students voted. In the spring 2018 elections, the UA and NEC also struggled to fill four Engineering seats, which led to a six-month vacancy between April and October 2019. The NEC reached out to student groups to attract candidates and filled the seats through a special election in October.
UA President and College senior Natasha Menon said the NEC and UA initially hoped to hold elections this semester to provide a sense of “normalcy.” Menon said, however, the well being of students during the coronavirus pandemic should take priority over the elections.
Wharton junior and UA representative John Casey and College junior and UA representative Mercedes Owens said they began asking Facebook friends to sign their petitions to run for UA President on Monday and Tuesday before the NEC announced the postponement. Menon, Casey, and Owens said they support the NEC’s decision to postpone the election.
“Especially during this time of crisis, the elections probably aren't the top-of-mind issue for every single student at Penn,” Casey said.
Both Owens and Casey said they plan to continue their campaigns in the fall. Owens added that she will use the extra time to further develop her platform.
“It's really important that at this time, we prioritize student health and the health of their families over the student government election at this time," Owens said. "That can be postponed, but illness can't."