The cases just kept coming this year.
The Duke Student Government Judiciary ruled on five cases related to Spring 2020's student elections. A Judiciary report, which documented the findings of an investigation into the elections, notes that the branch saw the highest number of petitions of any election cycle since it was founded in 2009.
“In total, the Judiciary ruled on five cases directly related to the actions of one or several DSG officers during the 2020 Election Cycle,” the report states. “No one election cycle should ever see this many cases directly involving DSG officeholders.”
Below is a breakdown of the facts, conclusions and consequences of each case.
In February, junior Jason Scharff filed a petition accusing Attorney General John Markis, a sophomore and a senior news reporter for The Chronicle, of using “priming language” in his email to students that contained the link to vote in the 2020 Young Trustee election.
“The Young Trustee has an outsized impact on the direction of this institution, especially in terms of expenditures. The Young Trustee sits on the council which determines the cost of tuition as well as Duke’s investment in fossil fuel industries, so if these issues matter to you, voting offers the most time-efficient chance to be heard,” Markis’ email introducing the voting link read.
Scharff claimed that mentioning specific issues of tuition and fossil fuel industries may have pushed students to vote for or against certain candidates in the election.
The Judiciary concluded that Markis did not violate the DSG Constitution or bylaws but rather “overstepped the purview” of his role as attorney general. The case was dismissed. Moving forward, the Judiciary recommended that “the Attorney General avoid making comments on specific issues relevant to the election cycle.”
The results of the Young Trustee election were delayed for two days because of the complaint. The DSG Senate changed election rules in April to prohibit the attorney general from using “priming language” when opening elections to students.
Markis, whom Scharff succeeded as attorney general in April, did not comment on specific details of the Judiciary report, including the results of the petitions.
"I appreciate the exhaustive report which Chief Justice [Georgia Lala, a senior,] 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."
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Two students filed a March 5 petition to the Judiciary against Markis and the DSG Senate regarding a referendum on amendments to the DSG Constitution.
The Judiciary found that Markis distributed “biased information” regarding the proposed amendments and that the Senate did not notify undergraduate students of the amendments at least seven days before the referendum as required by the Constitution.
Markis’ email with the voting link, sent March 5, asked students to “take a moment to support this new constitution.” The Judiciary found that this violated election rules.
The results of the referendum were voided, and another referendum was held in April.
The first Silombria v. Markis (2020)
In March, presidential candidate Valeria Silombria filed a complaint with Markis alleging that an election rule had been violated after a message promoting candidate Tommy Hessel, a junior, was sent in a Gamma Phi Beta sorority GroupMe. The message was sent by a member of Hessel’s campaign while voting was open for the 2020 presidential election.
Silombria requested that Hessel’s campaign be docked 90 votes for the alleged violation. Markis found that no election violation had occurred and that Silombria had misquoted the 2020 election statute. Silombria appealed the decision to the Judiciary and argued that the GroupMe message was a violation of rules regulating the use of email listservs during campaigns.
The Judiciary ruled in favor of Markis, stating GroupMe is a social media platform and does not qualify as an email listserv.
The Judiciary investigation found that Silombria’s complaint, while brought in “good faith,” was based on an incorrect version of the 2020 election statute.
The second Silombria v. Markis (2020)
Silombria filed a second complaint to Markis alleging that a member of Hessel’s campaign violated election rules by showing her phone, which displayed a pro-Hessel graphic, to another member of the team while campaigning for him during the election.
Markis docked 31 votes from the Hessel campaign, arguing that the phone graphic was a “banner” and violated the 2020 election rules. Silombria appealed the decision, alleging that Markis had violated the election by-law by failing “conduct a thorough investigation.”
The Judiciary ruled that possession of the phone was not “proffering” and the graphic was not a banner. Markis’ decision to take 31 votes from Hessel was overruled, but the Judiciary found that he did not violate any laws in “the process of hearing, investigating, and responding to Silombria’s petition.”
The final release of presidential results was delayed while the Judiciary resolved the cases.
Senator Jannis Stoeter, a junior, filed a complaint against Markis March 22 for committing “numerous violations of the Election Bylaw in his handling of the presidential election.”
The Judiciary found that Stoeter “does not have standing” to file some of the issued complaints, because he himself was not harmed by the alleged actions, including Markis’ release of the results before addressing all complaints and allegations that some students did not receive Markis’ email containing the election ballot.
Markis was found not to have been responsible for any delays in students receiving the election ballot. However, the Judiciary found that Markis failed to ensure that the 2020 election statute was uploaded to the DSG website and circulated with the election bylaws to students in an email. He violated Article VIII of the Constitution by “failing to conduct the presidential election in accordance with the provisions of the By-Laws and Statutes of the DSG.”
The Judiciary recommended that DSG “clarify in its By-Laws who is responsible for carrying out specific tasks, and create a working group to investigate the efficacy and legality of the email software system used by [University Center Activities and Events (UCAE)].”
UCAE did not respond to a request for comment about some students not receiving mass emails such as voting links in time for publication.