On paper, one platform lost the Purdue Student Government election by a 20% margin. But a closer look reveals an election process plagued with court hearings, technology issues and a declined recount.
When Mason Merkel and Martina Macaggi, both sophomores in the College of Engineering, decided to run, they thought they were in for a fun experience.
“Before this race, we didn’t think that it would be this deep,” Merkel said in a recent phone conversation. “Now we wonder why so many qualified people on our campus from outside the PSG establishment never run for positions.”
Merkel and Macaggi ran against Assata Gilmore, current PSG vice president and a junior in the Krannert School of Management, and Hannah Walter, two-term senator and a junior in the College of Health and Human Sciences.
The trial (or lack thereof)
A grievance was filed against the Merkel-Macaggi campaign after they sent out a survey two days before the official campaign start date to get student opinions on issues like mental health, sustainability and student representation. It was approved by the elections director, David Monroe, a junior in the Krannert School of Management.
“I believe that will not be violating any rules as long as you in particular do not specify any of your own campaign materials,” Monroe wrote in an email response to Merkel, according to Merkel.
A survey was posted on all the class Facebook pages and was reposted in student group chats and other social media pages. The survey received 163 responses, Macaggi said.
“Our goal was to collect student responses on hot topics like mental health, sexual assault, environment, student voice, etc., to make them better heard and allow us to use real data throughout our campaign to justify our mission,” Macaggi said.
The other side said they thought the campaign promoted its cause early and reached an extensive number of people.
“We brought it to the attention of the elections director and the chief justice to look at further just because they felt that it was reaching a wide audience of students,” Walter said. “As well as it announced who they were and what they were running for.”
Merkel said the survey did not contain the campaign’s platform but did state, “For more information about both tickets, find them on social media on and after March 25th,” the campaign period start date.
Walter said her campaign decided to file a complaint because of a message from a student unaffiliated with PSG, who sent the survey in a group chat with the presidents of the residence halls and implied the survey was an official PSG survey. The student was not affiliated with the campaign and Merkel had last worked with him in 2019 as a senator in the Halberdier Club, the Tarkington Hall club.
The court ruled that the survey classified as a “facilitation of an online presence prior to the campaign period,” dealing at first a 12% penalty to Merkel and Macaggi’s votes.
The unanimous decision by the court focused on the impression the survey had on students and the weight of an online presence in this election.
“We felt the language used by associate (the student) in the (President’s Roundtable) 2019-2020 GroupMe stating ‘PSG wants feedback ...’ would lead to an increased number of students interacting with the survey,” the ruling reads. “While he may not be an official member of the campaign, by directly sending him the survey to send out, we believe he was a ‘supporter of the ticket’ and therefore you as a ticket are responsible for his language.
“We believed that regardless of the number of students who completed the survey, response rate is not indicative of the total number of students who engaged with or saw the post that contained the survey itself.”
Merkel and Macaggi then filed a grievance against the other campaign with photographs of the campaign team wearing campaign shirts on campus before the campaign period. An Exponent staff member saw a group of more than 10 people, with Gilmore among them, taking pictures on the PMU stairs near the model of campus, wearing shirts with their campaign logo and slogan, “Be Bold.”
They also cited a campaign website and GoFundMe released several days before the campaign week.
Their case was never heard.
Before a hearing is held, a majority of justices must agree that one is necessary based on evidence from both parties. A majority did not agree, and the case was dropped.
“It was determined that (it) did not necessitate a hearing because we had screenshots of the website usage, and it had showed that day we had had 12 views on our website. And we also have 12 people in our campaign team,” Walter said. “That day during our meeting everyone got on the website and looked through all the pages to make sure that it looks good before we closed it off again.”
Walter said not many people saw them taking pictures, as most pictures were taken in the Purdue Memorial Union the Thursday before Spring Break, when some people had already left campus. They took a picture next to the arch in front of the Union but were outside for only a couple of minutes due to the rain.
Historically, campaigns have been able to have a GoFundMe page before the campaign period, Walter said.
“It was only sent to family,” Walter said. “It was not sent to any students or anything like that. It was just a way to collect money from family and friends who want to help out.”
Merkel and Macaggi say they were confused why the logic that was applied to their own case wasn’t applied to the opposite campaign.
“The airtight reasoning was a campaign manager claimed that they covered the logos on their shirts when walking around campus, thus nobody saw it, which was enough to drop the case,” Macaggi said. “While they showed that just 53 people (total) had visited the site, likely just some from undecided students, we had used the same reasoning to say that just 160 students saw the survey, many being our friends in our immediate network who signed our petition and already knew of our candidacy. Again, we don’t know why it’s a crime for students to know if someone is running as long as their policies aren’t leaked.”
Merkel hopes people can see the difficulties they encountered during the election.
“We want the students who filled out the survey, asking for transparency, to have access to see the real-time examples of this issue,” Merkel said. “The opposition, with high-ranking members of student government on its team, and close-knit friendships with important people in this election, have made transparency impossible.”
A different landscape: Virtual campaigning
This was an unprecedented election, as all campaigning was conducted online. Both campaigns heavily relied on Instagram and their respective websites for promotion.
“Having to rely so heavily on technology was frustrating as we experienced some technical difficulties and at times it felt quite impersonal,” Gilmore said. “Ultimately, I think the best part of campaigning is getting face-to-face interaction with students so I’m sad that we missed out on that aspect but am grateful for the experience nonetheless.”
A debate was held on March 27, recorded and live-streamed on the Gilmore-Walter campaign Instagram page with over 40 views, according to Walter.
The debate recording never made it to the public sphere.
Taylor Hickey, PSG chief justice and senior in the College of Liberal Arts, said in an email that this was mainly due to technical difficulties.
“Given the size and poor quality of the video, the decision was made to export the audio,” Hickey said. “While (PSG) President (Jo) Boileau also intended to send them out to the student body, I later discovered that he encountered difficulties embedding the audio files while using the system that helps send mass emails to the student body.”
Despite the virtual campaigning, voter turnout was the second highest in the last five years and up 853 votes from the last year, according to numbers from Monroe. Gilmore and Walter finished with 2,000 votes, and Merkel and Macaggi received 1,402 votes.
Both campaigns ran into issues posting on Instagram. The Gilmore-Walter account was blocked from posting periodically throughout the campaign week and the Merkel-Macaggi account was banned March 30 through April 1, per Walter and Merkel.
“We had a lot of traction on the page,” Walter said. “We think what happened was that sometimes (Instagram) thinks that the page is not being run by real people so they put restrictions on it.”
Merkel and Macaggi said the problem may have been due to following too many accounts on the first day, but also mentioned the possibility of the account being reported.
Merkel and Macaggi encountered other problems online, and they said there was harassment in the comments of the Instagram live stream and even an anonymous death threat posted in an Ask Me Anything forum they hosted on Reddit.
The Merkel-Macaggi campaign took their concerns to Heather Beasley, PSG advisor and director of external partnerships for the vice provost of student life. Upon hearing their perspective, the initial 12% penalty was reduced to 8%.
Beasley was not available for comment on the election immediately. According to Merkel, Beasley said she would relay the information to the other PSG advisors to investigate the matter.
Merkel said they were surprised about the results as they thought they had almost the entire Greek life vote and support from several large student organizations. The campaign requested a recount from a third party.
“We asked for a recount purely as a Hail Mary,” Merkel said. “We thought it was worth having the votes recounted, but it would put a burden on the election committee for a non-guaranteed result, which is why we understand why they declined a recount.”
Upon review by the elections director, the recount was considered unnecessary.
“Within the manner that the elections are carried out, the margin for error is already extremely low,” Monroe said. “On top of that, the disparity in the amount of votes either party received was far too great for the excess to be made up via a recount. I have not heard of an election, national, local or otherwise, that have had a party win 61% of the vote and had an outcome change with a recount. For all of these reasons, I deemed a recount inviable in this situation.”
Despite the unexpected challenges, Merkel and Macaggi said they’ve learned a lot from the experience.
Macaggi plans to join more student organizations and enact change at a grassroots level.
“I have decided to not get involved in student government next year because of all the red tape surrounding PSG and what I’ve seen as their lack of ability to get anything that really matters done,” Macaggi said.
Both were surprised by their ability to assemble a coalition of supporters across the political spectrum from College Republicans to Boilers for Bernie.
“I thought these elections were going to be lighthearted and fair, but after everything that happened, I’ve lost a lot of trust in the elections process, and PSG overall,” Macaggi said. “However, I am surprised that Mason and I got the support and made it as far as we did, considering we ran against two longtime members of PSG.”
Of all the policies in their platform, they hope that Gilmore and Walter will prioritize a strong stance on sustainability, moving beyond recycling to push for a carbon-neutrality bill.
Gilmore said she hopes to prioritize student health and wellness in her administration. She will serve as a member of the Campus Safe Task Force organized by Purdue President Mitch Daniels to ensure campus safety in the fall semester and onward, as coronavirus exacerbates the flu season.
“Some of our health and wellness initiatives include ... extending PUSH and (Counseling and Psychological Services) hours to operate for students from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Gilmore said.
She said the campaign also wants to focus on “increasing the number of practitioners that specialize in gender health services which includes men, women, trans and non-binary patients. Currently there is only one practitioner that specializes in gender health services which puts students that need immediate attention for services such as hormones or IUDs at risk given the scarcity of appointments.”
Walter acknowledged there may have been challenges to the election and recognized the importance of transparency in elections.
“We would like to make it clear that running a fair and positive campaign was a top priority for us and our team, and we would like to continue this into the coming year as we take office,” Walter said.
Merkel and Macaggi said they wish the best for Gilmore and Walter, who will likely face tough challenges in a post-COVID-19 world. Merkel, current director of sustainability, said he plans to stay involved in student government.
“The way I see it, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to run and it’s great practice in tackling establishment issues for next year,” Merkel said. “I plan to continue my work with student government to keep all the hopes of our campaign’s supporting student organizations … alive and work with Assata in realizing those hopes.”