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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Botched student vote for presidential search rife with election fraud risk, democratic deficit

BUTTRICK HALL, Office of the President – Hamilton College’s search to find a successor to President David Wippman is off to a rocky start after his surprise retirement announcement, coming after most students left campus. On Friday, May 26th, the Student Assembly (SA) administration sent a notices-students email with an approval voting link created by the College for rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors to indicate their approval or disapproval of 36 candidates for the Presidential Search Committee. Of the top six approval-getters, two will be chosen by the Board of Trustees to “represent” the student body on the Committee. There’s just a couple problems: you can vote as many times as you’d like, and you don’t need to verify your eligibility to do so.

SA President Nicole Soret ‘25 and Vice President Ryley McGovern ‘25 wrote in a statement to Monitor, “Honestly, the particulars of the election form/voting form have nothing to do with us. We were just asked to publicize election information as part of our roles as representatives of the student body.”

They continued, “Therefore, we are not suitable candidates for answering your questions, and we think you’ll find the answers you’re looking for from Gill King. However, we do understand and resonate with the need for a fair election, as this is a really important one, and hope that you’ll be able to find [answers] from faculty/administration more knowledgeable about this than us.” The two have privately advocated for integrity issues to be addressed.

King, who is serving on the Search Committee ex officio and is facilitating much of the process, is Chief of Staff to the College President and Secretary to the Board of Trustees. Neither she nor the Office of the President have responded to Monitor’s several inquiries since Friday, and the voting form remains unaltered as of publishing time.

Because the ultimate decision on which students will serve on the committee is not made by voters, but rather by those already with institutional power who have confidentiality expectations, Monitor offered anonymity to the several candidates it spoke with (not all of whom are quoted here) to protect them from the possibility of not being selected for speaking out.

“Hamilton’s failure to ensure the integrity of the ballot is unfair to us,” said Candidate A. “Why use a Google Form instead of the more secure ballots used for Student Assembly elections? If Hamilton truly stands for democracy and fair opportunities for its students, then I expect a higher level of commitment to fair and secure elections in the future.”

The Google Form sent to students Friday morning does not require voters to be logged into a Hamilton Google account, permits respondents to vote multiple times, and allows voters to revise their ballot after it has been submitted. Because it is a Google Form, there is also no internal way to verify voters are actually members of the classes of 2024, 2025, or 2026. Graduates in the Class of 2023, who are not eligible to vote, were sent the ballot via notices-students. In sum, both malicious actors and mistaken community members have had ample opportunity to make the results untrustworthy.

The Google Form use is unusual compared to most elections facilitated by SA, which use the College’s survey software Qualtrics and has the tools to address all of these election integrity issues.

Candidate B was frustrated with the whole process. “The presidential search committee process for picking students feels like a rushed afterthought. Unlike Student Assembly’s election process, candidates don’t have a method to explain why they feel qualified to be chosen by the student body. The vote’s timing after the end of the semester will also likely significantly depress turnout. After canvassing several students to vote, I found only two indicating they knew about the search committee beforehand.”

In a process that has already raised concern from students for its two-tier system whereby students are unable to directly elect their representatives in the search, who once there will comprise at most 12.5% of the committee, wherein the final decision is actually made by the full Board of Trustees, the election fraud and miscount risks further call into question the legitimacy of student representation in the search.

“While it’s disheartening that more care was not taken to ensure the accurate counting of votes, it seems indicative of the lack of actual choice the students will have in this process,” said Candidate C. “Given that only two students are selected of the top six vote-getters by the trustees themselves, it’s hard to believe there won’t be severe biases beyond this form. Not to mention the question of how much say those two students will actually have when faced by an overwhelming committee majority of people considered to be their superiors.”

According to an email sent by Gill King to students nominated to be candidates, the Search Committee, “will likely have 2 students, 3 faculty members, 2-3 staff members and 9-10 Trustees.”

To compound these concerns, there is uncertainty as to whether vote tallies will even be released. King wrote to Monitor the day before voting began, “Academic Council owns the process for faculty participation, and Student Assembly has been steering the student process. I am not sure whether the results will be made public.”

Yet, according to Soret and McGovern, “Yes, we are supposedly in charge of releasing the ballot totals, however, we are waiting on the cochairs of the board to make a decision. We have advocated for the issues to be addressed and fixed accordingly, hence the wait [in response to Monitor’s questions].”

The Search Committee’s co-chairs are Bob Delaney ‘79 and Linda Johnson ‘80, who are also Vice Chairs of Hamilton’s Board of Trustees. Delaney is a partner at Crestview Partners, where he manages fossil fuel company investments. He is also on the board of several fossil fuel companies and has chaired Hamilton’s trustee Investment Committee. Johnson is President and CEO at the Brooklyn Public Library, overseeing a staff of over a thousand.

Voting is scheduled to end at 5pm today (Sunday, May 28th). It is unknown whether the College regards the results as legitimate or will be taking any measures to provide for a secure student vote, despite SA, Monitor, and candidates’ inquiries. The Search Committee is expected to have finalists for Hamilton’s 21st President by December.

Candidate B made what’s at stake clear: “I feel as if our input is being as minimized as much as possible. I want Hamilton to have a succeeding president we all trust as students, but that can only be done if the process for choosing a president also trusts students.”

Correction 5/28: In a previous version of this article, the email with the voting link was both described as notices-all and notices-students; it was only sent to notices-students.

Disclosure Note: the author of this article was nominated to be a candidate for the committee, which he explicitly declined so as to report on the search.

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