Editorial: Senatorial elections mired in laptopping controversy

Courtesy of YouTube
Courtesy of YouTube

Last week, the UCR community learned that several representatives of the ASUCR political party [YOU]CR were caught using their laptops to campaign outside of the University Village Theater during elections week.  The discovery, which arose from a YouTube video that shows candidates from [YOU]CR holding laptops while they talk to students on the steps leading up to the theater, has rekindled the campus-wide debate on laptop campaigning, or laptopping.  Last year, the tactic was strictly outlawed by ASUCR on the grounds that it puts undue pressure on potential voters, but it would appear that the matter is far from resolved.

Unsurprisingly, representatives of other political parties like R’Voice have expressed serious concerns about whether or not the violation might have compromised the fairness of the election, which [YOU]CR notably swept.  Their complaints, however, have been met with the startling revelation that the incident may not actually constitute an infraction of the laptopping ban.

In its current form, ASUCR’s law against laptopping does not explicitly apply to campaigning that takes place off of campus property.  In Item 5, Section J of ASUCR’s election code, it is clearly stated that “ASUCR is not responsible for campaigning that happens on the internet or off campus unless it is considered ‘negative’ campaigning, bribery or otherwise unfair or criminal.”

Students regularly traverse the University Village on their way to classes both on campus and at the UV Theater, but the property is not actually owned by the university; it is, therefore, technically out of the election committee’s jurisdiction.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that any of the campaigning in which [YOU]CR representatives took part was “negative” or “criminal.”  Some have argued that any incidence of laptopping is inherently “unfair” because it gives the candidates who utilize it an advantage over others who elect to play by the rules.  But, in truth, there is no reason that other parties couldn’t have lawfully laptopped outside the UV Theater alongside [YOU]CR.  The language of the law, regrettably, allows for it.

[YOU]CR’s candidates took advantage of a loophole in current ASUCR legislation; their actions, while lamentable, do not represent a violation of the law.  But that does not make their behavior any less reprehensible – these individuals used laptops, which have access to the online system that many UCR students use to cast their votes, in order to advertise their political agendas in an area that many students have no choice but to cross in order to get to class.  Regardless of what the law says, their actions clearly embody the spirit of the crime that the laptop ban was intended to stop; and even if this special case of laptopping was not, legally speaking, “unfair” to the other parties involved with the election, it was clearly unfair to the students it affected.

In response to the debacle, Elections Chair Jonathon Mansoori announced that he would be proposing a change to the election code that would effectively ban all “explicit, physical” campaigning (not just laptopping, but even handing out flyers, soliciting votes, etc.) that takes place off-campus.  While Mansoori’s approach would certainly take care of the problem of off-campus laptopping, it would also outlaw many other forms of campaigning that do not at first blush seem to put undue pressure on potential voters.

We must remember that the reason that laptopping was outlawed in the first place is that it pressures students into voting for candidates while they are near a device that could be used to vote – it is tantamount to walking up to someone while they are standing in a voting booth and telling them why they should vote for a particular candidate.  This would never be allowed in a state or federal election, and it should not be allowed at UCR.

But handing out flyers, for example, does not present us with the same kind of moral dilemma that laptopping does, since there is no sense in which a student being handed a flyer is in or near the voting booth.  Mansoori’s approach is unnecessarily overbroad – in an attempt to solve a problem with one particular kind of campaigning, he is proposing that we do away with a whole host of campaigning tactics that pose no apparent threat to the integrity of the electoral system.

That being said, we must acknowledge that elections.ucr.edu is our electoral system’s proverbial voting booth.  As such, ASUCR must ensure that students are not pressured into voting for particular candidates while they are in the presence of a device that could be used to access it.  Voter privacy is one of the most fundamental aspects of any legitimate democratic election – UCR students must fight to see that it remains a protected right both on and off campus.

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