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Judicial branch to review ballot referendums


As ballots are being readied for the student body election season, students will soon be faced with decisions between presidential and senate candidates, the Our Shirt design and any referendum questions posed to the student body to gauge opinion.  

But this year, the judicial branch will be tasked with evaluating all referendums proposed to go on the ballot in addition to the Election Rules Committee (ERC). This comes after a bill passed by Student Government (SG) on Tuesday, a year after two referendum questions that were placed on the ballot were discounted 15 minutes before the results were announced.

Last year, two questions placed on the general election ballots – one asking students if they supported “the USF Student Government in adhering to the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and the other asking if students supported “boycotting divesting and sanctioning corporations with human rights violations” after the questions, placed on the ballot after a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) petition, sparked much debate – including some confusion over the legality of its wording.

The weekend before elections last year, Associate General Counsel Joanne Adamchak sent an email to Student Government adviser Gary Manka, former student body President Brian Goff and former senate president Jeff Gao stating the referendum violated Florida statutes 104.31 and 110.233. These laws prohibit political activity including attempts to “directly or indirectly coerce or attempt to coerce, command and advise any such officer or employee as to where he or she might purchase commodities or to interfere in any other way with the personal right of said officer or employee.”

“From my reading of the referendum, if SGA permits the referendum, the officers are indirectly advising the university on how to purchase commodities, etc.,” the email said. “I understand the position of SGA is there is no limitation on the referendum permitted, however, there is an overall duty to abide by state law and university policies and SGA cannot adopt a statute, by law … or referendum that violates those laws and policies. I don’t know what more I can say.” 

The ballots were released however, and 15 minutes before election results were announced, Goff sent an email apologizing to students for the confusion saying no branch of SG had vetted the referendum and the questions would be thrown from the ballots. 

This year, the judicial branch will review proposed questions to ensure they do not violate existing policies in addition to the ERC. Senate President Pro-Tempore Adam Aldridge proposed including General Counsel on a panel of individuals to review the referendum content before hand, but some senators raised opposition to the involvement of a non-student entity being involved at that stage, and the language was not included in the bill that passed.  

“My guess is they’d try to find something to shut them down if it’s bad PR,” one senator said.  “In the end they work for the administration and they want to make everything look as good as possible in the media, so their first allegiance isn’t to students like SG’s is.”

Aldridge said he understood where the senator came from, but thought earlier involvement from General Counsel may help avert future crises. 

“Would you want them to look up this stuff before or almost blow up an election like last time?” he said. 

Manka said he thought review worked better as a proactive measure than a reactive measure. 

“Anything you do can’t conflict with state law or higher law,” he said. “There’s a hierarchy of law. (General Counsel) recognizes that laws that don’t conflict with state laws or federal laws or university policies are within SG’s domain. … You cannot require the university to take action. That violates existing university policy.”

The language was eventually taken out, but the bill passed. The elections will be held Feb. 24 through 27.