The day before USC undergraduates can begin to vote for their new president and vice president, two of the presidential tickets are protesting what they say is lax punishment of a third campaign that admitted breaking election rules by establishing a Facebook group before the allowed date.
In written statements issued on Monday, the chairmen of two Undergraduate Student Government presidential campaigns detailed several grievances with what they believe to be an organization riddled with conflicts of interest, lackadaisical treatment of rules, and inconsistent punishments. Both the chairmen of Rachel Udabe and Rebecca Harbeck's campaign and Daniel Million and Timothy Vorhoff's campaign published the complaints following two Elections Commission hearings and a Judicial Council appeals hearing regarding the Austin Dunn and Morgan Monahan campaign's wrongful head start with social media campaigning.
Both teams approached Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards (SJACS) after the verdict of the appeals hearing, saying they felt the Elections Commission hearings and subsequent Judicial Council hearing were adjudicated unfairly.
The Rachel/Rebecca ticket recommended disqualification for Austin/Morgan in their initial hearing. The Million/Vorhoff team asked for disqualification in the appeal hearing.
In the two Elections Commission hearings on Sunday, Jan. 29, the Rachel/Rebecca team presented evidence that 364 members were added to an unlawful Facebook group that had been created by the Austin/Morgan campaign approximately 32 hours before the legal campaigning period, which began at 7 pm. on Jan. 26.
However, Austin/Morgan campaign manager Paul Breslin argued that not all added members were actively engaged in the group, and that some of the 364 may have been added during the legal campaigning period. Later evidence during the hearing suggested that there were at least 60 active members in the group before campaigning was allowed, since these participants had "liked" a post in the group explaining campaign strategy.
As a result, two strikes were assessed against the Austin/Morgan ticket — one in the Million/Vorhoff hearing and one in the Rachel/Rebecca hearing. As a result of the strikes, the team received two social media sanctions, which prevented Austin/Morgan from campaigning online for 48 hours.
A presidential ticket can receive a total of nine strikes before becoming disqualified.
At the Tuesday, Jan. 31, appeal before the Judicial Council, the Austin/Morgan campaign received two additional strikes paired with two financial sanctions, bringing the ticket to a total of four strikes. This means the Austin/Morgan team will have to pay up to $1,000 out of pocket to finance their campaign — normally, a presidential ticket receives a $1,500 reimbursement budget from USG.
A similar complaint by Austin/Morgan supporter Samantha Sohl was filed against the Rachel/Rebecca ticket for distributing campaign materials to one person before the silent period ended, leading to that campaign incurring one strike. In her statement, Rachel/Rebecca campaign manager Rachel Krusenoski said the verdicts — considered in a hearing closed to the public — were based on flawed logic:
"We incurred one strike for one instance of distributing campaign material to one person before we were allowed to do so. To me, that makes sense—one instance of violation would correspond to one strike. It is beyond me as to why the Austin/Morgan ticket got two strikes for what is the equivalent of 750 instances of violation. In relation to the actual hearing, this breaks down into one instance or violation for every person who was added to the group before the silent period ended and one instance or violation for no attempt by the Austin/Morgan ticket to remedy the situation per what has been specified in code."
Krusenoski said that at least 60 active participants in the group should correspond to at least 60 strikes if the same logic from the Sohl verdict were used in the Rachel/Rebecca complaint. She said she felt that the punishments were not allocated equitably, but because deliberations take place behind closed doors, it is impossible to know exactly how these strikes were assessed.
The Elections Code provides broad guidelines for how to allocate strikes:
- XI.L.1. The validity of the charge.
- XI.L.2. The severity and effect of the offense on the election.
- XI.L.3. The intent of the offender and/or his/her campaign staff
- XI.L.4. The number of violations the offender and campaign staff has been sanctioned against previously.
- XI.L.5. The cooperativeness of the offender and/or his/her campaign staff.
Dunn agreed there may need to be a reassessment of the codes, but he doesn't think the current system is necessarily unfair.
"It's all very subjective," Dunn said in the Monday interview. "In one of the hearings, there was discussed a situation in which one ticket had a member of the ticket speak to a professor about running and that classroom repeated it to a classroom of students, and so the question I posed in the hearing was that, hypothetically speaking, would you believe that is one mistake or that was… let's say there's a hundred students — is that 200 mistakes, since you knowingly told a professor who told times two, 200? In my personal standpoint, I would argue that is one mistake."
This hypothetical did happen – during the initial Sunday hearing, Rachel Udabe admitted to telling a "personal mentor" of hers about her plan to run. The professor repeated it to a class of his. Udabe said she refused to speak on it further to others.
The Elections Commission conducted the first two complaint hearings. According to the elections code, at least five voting members – or elections commissioners – are appointed by the associate director and assistant director of elections, with confirmation by a Senate majority.
The elections directors are appointed by the senior director of communications with advice from executive members of USG, including the vice president — currently Austin Dunn, who said he "did sit in on many" of the communications branch interviews — and are also confirmed by a Senate vote following appointment. Although these chairmen are allowed to vote only in the case of a tie, they are present during closed-door deliberations, such as the first two hearings regarding the Austin/Morgan campaign's behavior.
The Million/Vorhoff and Rachel/Rebecca campaigns said this presented a conflict of interest. Hashim Osman, campaign manager for Million/Vorhoff, described this issue in his statement:
"As soon as Million/Vorhoff and Rachel/Rebecca caught wind of the cheating, complaints were filed but we soon realized how futile our efforts were. Many people with positions of power, and all of the people who served as justices during the hearings, were appointed by Austin and remain close friends of his."
Twenty-three USG members were added to the unlawful Facebook group, including President Saucedo and Luke Southwell Chan, who as senior director of communications oversees the election. Dunn said that the code and bylaws were contradictory, but he maintains that the addition of the USG members was a result of their personal relationship with Dunn – not their professional ties.
"Those people and the members of the executive board are my best friends before they're members of the executive board," Dunn said during the interview on Monday. "The actual intent behind that action of adding those people was just adding people that I love and care about and people that I want support from."
In their statements, the Rachel/Rebecca and Million/Vorhoff chairmen detailed a series of personal relationships between the Austin/Morgan team and the Elections Commission directors. These relationships are not prevented by USG code or bylaws, but the chairmen feel that the position calls impartiality into question.
"It is a well-known fact that the students who hold positions of power within USG are mostly within the same friend group," Osman wrote in his statement. "Many of them come from the same high school and they tend to give their friends positions without considering any other applicants. This has not been a secret. They blatantly and smugly showcase elitism. USG has not accurately represented the student body at all."
Dunn said he doesn't believe the aforementioned relationships influenced the hearings and previously mentioned in the appeals hearing that it was difficult to avoid making personal relationships as the vice president of the organization.
"I really can't follow the logic or the idea of my role as vice president affecting the hearings," Dunn said. "I can't really imagine somebody putting up the argument that I was given an advantage or an upper hand in regards to the sanctions. I think if you look in retrospect, I'm now $1,000 in debt and I've already paid 48 hours of probation time."
Throughout the judicial process, release of information was delayed. Both the Judicial Council and the Elections Commission repeatedly failed to provide recordings and/or transcripts to attendees within 24 hours of the verdicts — a requirement under USG Elections Code. The Elections Commission directors were responsible for uploading transcripts and recordings for the initial hearings.
After the Jan. 31 hearing, the associate director of elections, Katherine Lee, said there were technical difficulties in uploading the recording from the assistant director of elections' phone. Dunn said they had "worked to the best of their ability" to release the information.
All verdict deliberations were closed-door, so there is no knowledge of who exactly contributed to the verdicts. There were also separate unremedied technical difficulties throughout the week: the code, bylaws and constitution were unavailable on USG's website, and there was no visible alternative offered.
In the appeal meeting on Jan. 31, Dunn mentioned his experiences during the previous campaigns of current President Saucedo as well as former president and vice president Rini Sampath and Jordan Fowler, respectively. Dunn said that the two campaigns had also committed the same "breaking of the rules."
"The only way I know how to run a campaign is how I was taught, how I learned," Dunn said. "I learned how to run a campaign last year for Edwin because Edwin learned from Rini/Jordan previously."
In their statements, the managers of the two protesting campaigns referenced Dunn's comment.
"It gets even worse. In order to deflect the blame, Austin threw the past two administrations (Rini/Jordan, Edwin/Austin) under the bus," Osman wrote. "Austin admitted on record that he had cheated or helped others cheat their way into power for the past three years. This does not sound like the actions of a trustworthy individual."
Dunn explained in the interview on Monday that he didn't enjoy bringing up previous administrations, but he felt he needed to explain his intent behind creating the Facebook group.
"I totally want to not touch on that if I could because I really think the focus should be placed on the current tickets," Dunn said. "I think Edwin and I's campaign shouldn't really be discussed in regards to this realm and … the success of the Rini/Jordan campaign. The reason that was brought up was because we started questioning integrity and intent behind decisions and that's never something Morgan and I wanted."
Both the Rachel/Rebecca and Million/Vorhoff campaigns' statements highlight issues within the USG elections process. In her statement, Krusenoski of the Rachel/Rebecca campaign said that the lack of impartiality in the elections process reduces access to positions for average students.
"The student government is meant to represent all of the undergraduates at USC," Krusenoski said. "The students of this campus deserve a government that is open for all to represent it. When the appointed and even elected positions in USG are held by people who are friends or went to the same high school, it calls into question the kind of access the rest of the student body has to these governing positions."
Osman of the Million/Vorhoff campaign echoed this claim, blaming low engagement and voter turnout on what he felt was the exclusive and opaque nature of USG.
"USG has not accurately represented the student body at all," Osman said. "This is why students have become increasingly disengaged from USG and voter turnouts continue to diminish."
The Austin/Morgan campaign released a statement late Monday afternoon on Facebook admitting their infraction and stating a renewed commitment to campus issues.
"The work we will do is best demonstrated by the work we have done," the campaign said.
Voting begins on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and runs through Thursday.
Corrected Feb. 7 at 12:52 a.m. PT and at 1:20 a.m. PT: After further review, a portion of this story concerning the USG Judicial Council was found to be incorrect and was removed. Members of that council serve terms that span their entire full-time undergraduate enrollment at USC. The story was also updated to clarify the roles Austin Dunn and the USG Senate played in the selection of the associate and assistant directors of elections.
News Editor Charlotte Scott, South L.A. Editor Daniela Silva, and Staff Reporters Sophia Kim and Jake Ingrassia contributed to this report.