Controversy Leads to FSU SGA Re-election

Due to breaches of election code, the February 8th SGA election (in which the Ignite party won every contested seat in the Senate) was officially ruled invalid and a re-election will take place today, March 21st.

It is rare that election disputes at Florida State University go beyond action by the Elections Commission. However, on February 13th the Elections Commission listened to alleged charges brought against both Progress Coalition and the Ignite Party.

The charges brought against Progress Coalition were in response to a Facebook status on their page, as shown below:

The charge was dropped because the language of the Facebook status concerns the party as a whole and thus falls outside the realm of the statute.

The Elections Commission also denied one of the charges against Ignite, one with potentially criminal implications. Ignite was accused of exploiting the tax exempt status of SGA to help their campaign in direct conflict with Student Body Statute 205.3b:

Ignite was found to have ordered campaign signs and other promotional materials using the SGA tax exempt status. As calculated at the Supreme Court hearing, this saved Ignite nearly $100 collectively in the last two elections.  Ignite claimed at the Elections Commission hearing that the tax issue was an additional mistake, and they acted in quickly to rectify the situation by paying the unpaid taxes.

The Elections Commission found Ignite guilty of failing to turn in a completed final expense statement by the allotted deadline. Following the hearing, FSU Supreme Court picked up the case in response to appeals from both sides.

In order for parties to run for election at FSU, they are required to attend an informational presentation in which election statutes are reviewed and made known to all attendees. A major component of the election code is campaign finance. According to FSU Student Body Statute 715.9, “Any candidate or political party who fails to submit a final expense statement within the allotted time period shall be automatically disqualified from that election, […] no other penalty other than immediate disqualification may be assessed.” The deadline for parties to turn in this expense statement ends at 4 pm of the day following the election. Despite the fact that both parties did turn in financial documents that day, the Ignite party’s final expense statement was incomplete.

There are five documents required of each running party within the financial expense statement:

  1. cumulative campaign expenditures
  2.  itemized list of all expenses
  3. signed statement by the Supervisor of Elections insuring that all of the campaign’s contributions were collected according to the statute
  4. an itemized report of all of the contributors to the campaign
  5.  a copy of all financial documents

Of the five required documents to be included in the statement, two were missing: their bank statement and their list of campaign contributors.

Ignite explained to the Elections Commission and the Supreme Court that the missing documents were a result of simple human error.

“All three of the previous four elections have been certified,” said Rueben Stokes, who is running as student body president for Ignite. “From our Treasurer’s perspective, the way the treasurer handled two of those last elections trained him to think that those two documents were sufficient.”

Following the complaint by Progress Coalition, Ignite turned in the missing documents 20 hours after the deadline. Ignite pointed out that failing to turn in a complete expense statement is not the same as failing to turn in a statement at all, to which a member of the commission responded, “If I sold you a car, but only gave you a gas tank, would that be considered selling you a car?”

After over four hours of deliberation, the court voted unanimously that a special election was to be held. Amid several suggestions for a penalty, the prevailing opinion was that both parties should run unimpeded. It was required that the student body should be made fully aware of Ignite’s violations via a special insert on the ballot explaining the circumstances, as well as in the FSView. Vice President of Student Affairs, Mary Coburn, concurred with the court’s decision by issuing the following letter:

The Supreme Court and the Elections Commission conceded that Ignite failed to file the required financial statement in its entirety. However, the court decided that no sanction beyond a $250 fine and the requirement of a special election should be imposed. The decision is in compliance with the provision in the Florida Elections Code that allows for a seven day “cure” period. Since Ignite filed the paperwork within this grace period, the Supreme Court decided that there was no evidence of fraudulent behavior on the behalf of the Ignite Party.

Some members of Progress Coalition disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court essentially made a misinterpretation of statutes and used it to bludgeon any penalty or accountability that the Ignite party would face,” said Ralph Wilson, who ran as Vice President under Progress Coalition. “It was not only unjust but poorly done and laughable at that.”

Some students on campus echo the discontent with the way the election proceedings have transpired.

“[Students] don’t even know what happened…they are unconsciously supporting misconduct,” said Erin Welch, an FSU student double majoring in Music and International Affairs.

Stokes, on the other hand, expressed confidence students would again show their overwhelming support for the Ignite Party.

“I guess in a perfect world, we’d like to see an increase of voter turnout, but realistically if we can achieve the same number that we received on February 8th, which I believe was about 6,100, then that’ll be very good.”