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'Abhorrent': Judiciary report slams DSG over election errors

A Duke Student Government Judiciary report harshly criticized DSG for a variety of perceived failings in the spring's student elections. 

The Spring semester was marked by several bumpy elections, including a delay in the release of Young Trustee results because of a complaint, a miscount and two complaints in the presidential election and two resets to the ballot for the last elections of the year.

From March 6 to April 26, the Judiciary conducted an investigation of the elections, with Georgia Lala, a senior and the 2019-20 chief justice, serving as principal investigator. According to a 21-page report outlining the findings, the investigation found that DSG officials “repeatedly neglected” to follow DSG’s Constitution and bylaws during the elections.

“Regardless of whether this was an act of willful ignorance or of gross negligence, it is apparent that the DSG places little value in adhering to the governing documents,” the report reads. “As members of a community which prides itself on integrity and respect, it is abhorrent that the DSG failed to do their due diligence to understand and administer its own governing documents.”

Liv McKinney, a senior and the 2019-20 DSG president, did not respond to a request for comment on the elections in time for publication.

Failure to ensure access to documents

The report stated that there were “several key violations” of DSG’s governing documents and that DSG “acted in an offensively negligent manner” by not ensuring that undergraduate students had access to them.

Although all governing documents are available on the DSG website, the investigation found that the published versions were out of date during the Spring 2020 elections, which caused presidential candidate Valeria Silombria, a junior, to file a complaint based on an incorrect version of the 2020 election statute. 

During a referendum on amendments to the DSG Constitution, the report found that it was “exceedingly difficult for students to identify the proposed changes” because a document labeled as the past version of the Constitution did not match the version found on DSG’s website. 

Aly Diaz, a junior and president pro tempore of the DSG Senate, responded in an email to The Chronicle that the up-to-date documents were always on the DSG website.

DSGHub is automatically updated because it is connected to [DSG’s Google Drive folder], which I or the executive secretary updates,” Diaz wrote. The folder is “always updated” because it changes after the Senate votes on documents, she added.

The DSG Constitution also mandates that undergraduates be “notified of proposed amendments at least seven days prior to a Constitutional Referendum,” which did not happen before a March vote on the proposed constitutional amendments, according to the report.

Per the report, Diaz provided Attorney General John Markis, a sophomore and a senior news reporter for The Chronicle, with the appropriate documents less than two days before the vote. 

Diaz responded that she only learned two days before the election that Markis did not have access to the Google Drive folder with the relevant documents, even though it had been shared with him before. She stated that Markis had been aware of the amendments since last year, as they were proposed in 2018-19 by the Senate Internal Affairs Committee.

“If [Markis] did not have access to the [Google Drive], I did not know until the day I sent him the documents,” Diaz wrote. She argued that if he was aware of the rule about distributing documents seven days before the vote, he should have waited to hold the vote on the amendments until the April elections for vice presidents, senators and class council.

Diaz also wrote that the governing documents made no mention of who is supposed to notify undergraduate students of proposed changes at least seven days in advance.

“Should it be the [attorney general] via email? Or the President in a DSG blast? The wording does not delegate the task, thus resulting in it not being completed and harming the student body,” she wrote.

However, Diaz wrote that she feels she could have played a bigger role in ensuring that everything ran smoothly with the amendment proposals.

“Given all the issues with the [attorney general] and elections, either [McKinney] or I should have double-checked his work in the interest of the student body and to protect the integrity of the proposed changes,” she wrote. 

Diaz wrote that she will be meeting with Silombria, next year’s president pro tempore, to discuss changes to the seven days rule and other imprecise DSG policies. She wrote that DSG and the Senate Internal Affairs Committee have been working to update DSG documents that are “vague, unclear and outdated.” 

She wrote that “flaws in the rules are not noticed” in certain documents that are “not invoked frequently,” such as those for constitutional referendums. 

According to Diaz, the Judiciary asked her for testimony but did not include it in the report. Because of this, she wrote that “the report made by the Judiciary leaves important parts of the story out and did not ask questions that would provide more information.”

“For example, they stated I sent [Markis] the documents two days before the election, but did not state the reason as to why which was the fact that he was shared on all documents but did not tell me until two days before that he did not have the access/the shares did not work,” she wrote.

Lala did not respond to a request for comment on Diaz’s claim in time for publication. 

A new version of the DSG Constitution was made available to students after the amendments were added, but it did not indicate where in the Constitution the amendments were made, according to the report. The report attributes this error to Markis.

Markis, who was succeeded as attorney general by Jason Scharff, a junior, in April, did not comment on specific details of the report. 

"I appreciate the exhaustive report which Chief Justice Lala and the Judiciary have procured through hours of diligent investigation,” Markis wrote in an email. “I wish Jason Scharff the best of luck as he embarks as the incoming attorney general, and my sincere hope is that next year's elections run as seamlessly as possible." 

An illegal election statute

Markis also introduced an illegal election statute that violated several components of the election bylaw, according to the report. The report states that he failed to include the deadline for making complaints and published a rule regarding the amount of time candidates have to respond to complaints that violated the election bylaw.

The report also criticizes the DSG Senate for not noticing his errors before voting to approve the statute.

“What this sadly indicates is that, at best, DSG Senators did not remember nor reference the contents of the ​Election By-Law when debating the statute, or, at worst, had never bothered to ever read it prior to passing the 2020 Election Statute,” the report reads.

Petitions and a miscount in the presidential election

Failure to include the complaint deadline meant that Markis learned the results of March’s presidential election while he was still receiving complaints, according to the report. The document states that “the Attorney General’s decision on a petition could easily be influenced by the knowledge of how a particular decision would impact the final result of the election.”

Markis then released the results of the election before he could successfully resolve two complaints filed by Silombria, according to the report.

The report notes that the election bylaw mandates that “the Attorney General shall determine and certify the results of an election after the final deadline to file complaints regarding election violations has passed and all complaints filed have been resolved.” The investigation found that it was not possible for Markis to adhere to the first part of this requirement because his election statute did not establish a deadline, but that he would have been able to fulfill the second part by waiting for complaints to be resolved.

The report also notes that The Chronicle initially reported that Silombria won the presidential election, though junior Tommy Hessel was the eventual winner. The report states that this was because not all voting data was copied and pasted from an Excel spreadsheet into the application that delivers the final results, a process handled by University Center Activities and Events (UCAE). This led to an incorrect vote tally that Markis relayed to The Chronicle.

The report also states that some members of the DSG Judiciary received multiple complaints throughout the year from undergraduate students that they did not receive emails meant for the entire student body, including election links and blast emails sent by McKinney. It raises the concern that either the list of students to whom emails are sent is incomplete or the system UCAE uses to send them is faulty.

UCAE did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Furthermore, Markis did not “carry out his circulation duties for all of the 2020 Elections” by failing to ensure that the election bylaws, rules and procedures were distributed to students and uploaded to the DSG website at the appropriate time. He also did not hold an informational meeting for presidential candidates Hessel and Silombria but instead sent them an email with a “formal summation of campaign-specific by-laws,” which included incorrect information about budgeting for candidates.

A re-referendum and a three-ballot election

During February’s Young Trustee election, a student filed a petition against Markis for his use of “priming language” in Markis’ email to students with the voting link. Although the Judiciary ruled that Markis did not violate the DSG Constitution or bylaws, they recommended that the attorney general “refrain from including information that was not explicitly required” when communicating with students, according to the report. 

The Senate modified election rules in April to prohibit the attorney general from using “priming language” when opening elections to students.

The report accuses Markis of again of using “priming language” in the March constitutional referendum when he asked students to “take a moment to support this new constitution.” The Judiciary voided the results of the referendum because of the election bylaw violation, and another was held in April.

The report states that “the Attorney General’s perception of his role far overstretched the role prescribed by the DSG Constitution and By-Laws” and that Markis “undermined the integrity” of the Young Trustee election and the first constitutional referendum.

The last finding in the report cites a ballot failure in April’s elections for vice presidents, senators and class council. Markis sent a total of three ballots to students. The first ballot left out several candidates and did not include a “no confidence” voting option for unopposed candidates, according to the report. After the voting software did not clear the results of the first ballot, Markis had to void the second ballot and send a third.

“While the Judiciary cannot confirm voter turnout was lower in these elections, it is completely possible as students who voted on the first ballot did not vote or did not know to vote on the second or third ballot,” the report reads.

The conclusions

The report concludes by asserting that DSG members “failed to abide” by the oaths they made when they took office.

The report states that undergraduate students were the most harmed by DSG’s “neglect” of its governing documents, as DSG’s actions “made it impossible for the Undergraduate Student Body to be an informed electorate both in the lead up to and during the 2020 Election Cycle by failing to provide them with appropriate access to the governing documents and by neglecting their duties as officeholders.”

“Members of the Undergraduate Student Body deserve representatives who, at the bare minimum, read and understand their own governing documents,” the report reads. “The Judiciary hopes this investigation will serve as a wakeup call to all incoming DSG members to hold themselves to a higher standard and take their roles as officeholders seriously, lest they repeat their miscreations and once again harm the very members of the Undergraduate Student body they swore to protect and represent.”

The report states that DSG expects students to adhere to its governing documents and must also do so itself. 

“No member of the DSG is above the law,” it reads.

The recommendations

In order to convince DSG officeholders to “hold the governing documents to a higher regard,” the report suggests holding workshops during the Fall 2020 semester so that members can have a “greater understanding and respect” for these documents. It also recommends a workshop in Spring 2021 regarding election bylaws.

The Judiciary further recommends that bylaws and the Constitution more explicitly state who is responsible for carrying out what duties, as several of the issues throughout the 2020 election cycle were caused by tasks not being specifically assigned, causing confusion among senators. 

Lastly, the Judiciary urges DSG to create a committee to “investigate the efficacy of software used by UCAE,” ensuring that all students are included on the email list and that technical issues are resolved before the next elections.

Correction: This article was updated to reflect that McKinney is a senior, not a junior. The Chronicle regrets the error.

Read the full report below:


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