Students dispute mobile polling after campaign accusations

The definition of a mobile polling station was the key issue at Wednesday’s SG Supreme Court trial for candidate Saeed Sinan, accused of harassing voters in the Library. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

What do you consider a mobile polling station?

This was just one question members of the SG Supreme Court asked Saeed Sinan, a newly elected senator from the College of Arts and Sciences, on Wednesday.

Sinan, who was accused of going around the Library during campaigning and urging students to vote for him either by their personal laptops or his own phone if they didn’t have a computer with them, said he wasn’t running a mobile polling station.

Instead, he told the court he was guiding students to vote and only offered them his phone as a convenience.

“I directed people to vote because sometimes the polling stations on campus … were not operating so I did not want them to just go there and say they didn’t find it, so I gave them convenience to vote at that time if they wished to,” Sinan said. 

While polling stations did suffer from a lack of volunteers during voting week, Title VII of SG statutes has a short definition of a mobile polling station: “The use of any portable device by any person for the purposes of voting in any election.”

According to SG Supervisor of Elections, John Quiroz, who was the first witness at Wednesday’s trial, all candidates were both told about mobile polling stations during mandatory candidate information sessions and were emailed a copy of election rules and rules of procedure.

“In all the information sessions, I specifically reviewed this one instance because it had come up in past elections with polling stations,” Quiroz said. “I asked (sic) the candidates you can’t use your phone, laptop or any mobile device, you can’t give it to a potential voter. What you can do is promote the website and walk away. I made this very clear because I didn’t want anyone falling into a gray area.”

Quiroz also said he told candidates that failing to follow this rule would result in a major violation and they would thus be disqualified from the election. If the court finds Sinan guilty, he will be disqualified and there will be a runoff election for the vacant seat for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The key piece of evidence in the trial was a video (see here) taken by acting Senate President Abdool Aziz, in which Sinan is shown standing over a student and instructing him how to vote.

SG Attorney General Alex Johnson, who spoke at the trial on behalf of the Election Rules Committee, asked Aziz if he thought the student seemed forced or compelled to vote by Sinan.

“Absolutely, because that individual is not the first person that’s encountered that,” Aziz replied. “People emailed into Student Government and complained that individuals have been doing this to them and they don’t leave until you vote.”

Sinan responded to this by bringing the student in the video, Tian Feng, to testify on his behalf. 

Though Feng said he chose to vote and who to vote for, he said English wasn’t his first language and asked Sinan for help with the instructions on the eBallot.

Feng said he did not know the spelling of Sinan’s name and asked how it was spelled while voting.

Sinan maintained he did not urge Feng to vote for him while guiding him through the ballot, but in an earlier statement to the court, Sinan said he did not know which college Feng was registered to vote in, but that he was not a candidate on Feng’s ballot.

Feng said he was an INTO student studying geology, a major in the College of Arts and Sciences, which Johnson pointed out to the judges. According to the USF directory, Feng is a geology student but does not have a designated college.

“The fact of Mr. Sinan’s intention is not relevant in this case,” Johnson said in his closing statement. “The use of a mobile polling station is a violation of Title VII, there is no ambiguity there.”

Johnson added that Sinan standing over the student’s shoulder is evidence of forcing an individual to vote.

When Sinan faced the justices for questioning during his closing statement, Ranking Justice Rachael Soloway asked what his intention was for standing over Feng, even after he already pulled up the voting website. Sinan said he was helping his friend through the language barrier and, to avoid distracting from the student’s homework lab for too long, making the voting process easier.

Soloway pointed out that he had already distracted from the lab by asking him to vote.

When asked by Chief Justice Daniel Shapiro to refute the claim of using a mobile polling station, and then later asked by justice Lindsay Betros what he considered a mobile polling station, Sinan seemed to evade and indirectly address the issue.

“So the reason why is that many students wanted to vote, however they didn’t have electronics or their phone or their computer was dead and I didn’t want to inconvenience them to go to a polling station,” Sinan told Shapiro.

“I consider a mobile polling station for when someone can vote for whoever they want. It can be a phone or a laptop or anything,” Sinan told Betros.

While Shapiro established that Sinan did not have a malicious intent and that Sinan did give his phone to some voters to vote, Sinan seemed to backtrack under the questioning saying he “forgot the rules.”

“Actually it was two weeks before election week, so at that time I forgot the rules actually so that’s why I did just for their sake,” Sinan admitted. “There was an email sent like two or three weeks before elections started so during that time I didn’t tell anyone to vote … I had a simple mindset that I should not do any major violations like slander or forcing or anything of the sort so I played by the rules.”

“I didn’t force, I didn’t mention, I didn’t ask any student to reveal their login,” Sinan later said. “I don’t believe this counts as authorizing a mobile polling station — I did it just for the sake of their convenience.”

Johnson concluded by pointing out that if Sinan showed Feng how to vote on his laptop by standing over his shoulder and by giving at least one student his phone to vote, as Sinan said, that would be two counts of a major violation.

A ruling on the trial is expected from the court within the next few days. If the court rules against Sinan, a runoff election is expected to occur March 23-25 for the empty seat in the SG Senate for the College of Arts and Sciences along with the expedited election for senators in the Muma College of Business.