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Letter: Why I sued and called for a new Young Trustee election

letter to the editor

Imagine walking into the polling booth November 3 and the walls were covered with images of children being held under ICE custody. While as Duke students, the vast majority of us would agree that children should not be in cages, we can also agree that such an election would not be fair. Polling booths should be politically neutral. 

Now, imagine a slightly different example: instead of printed photos, as you walk into vote, the polling worker tells you to “remember that important issues are at stake such as the fate of undocumented children.” This too would clearly be wholly unacceptable. Yet, unfortunately the actions of DSG Attorney General John Markis in the Young Trustee election were not too different from this second hypothetical. In the official email to vote—essentially the entrance to the polling booth—Mr. Markis specifically identified issues such as “cost of tuition” and “fossil fuel investment” at stake without mentioning any other issues. 

Mr. Markis contends that because candidates did not fully campaign on either of these two issues, his messaging is acceptable—and in fact a positive by “ensur[ing] that voters understand the gravity of the Young Trustee position." However, any casual observer of the election would note that since candidates cannot directly run on a platform, they instead heavily insinuate their position on such issues and others through their messaging without verbatim mentioning an issue. Moreover, in a campus election, most voters have knowledge far beyond official campaign materials and could have a strong sense of the candidates’ positions on these issues through other means. Thus, Mr. Markis’ email favored candidates with more established positions on these issues at the expense of candidates who chose to emphasize other issues. Yet, even if the positions of the candidates on these issues were truly unknown, Mr. Markis’ conduct would still be inappropriate as it would have primed voters to think about the particular issues deemed salient by Mr. Markis rather than who would make the best overall Young Trustee. 

As a strong believer in free and fair elections, I was outraged. While I respect the Judiciary’s opinion to dismiss, this sets a nerve-wracking precedent. Nothing in the election bylaws directly prohibits the AG from next time just saying “Vote for X.”

Jason Scharff is a Trinity junior.

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