Before voting began in April for the 2021 Student Senate election, the newly formed Student Trial Court made an advisory opinion in March, stripping this year’s candidates of their right to organize into coalitions on the ballot.
Candidates organizing into coalitions and parties to campaign for a common platform has been an integral piece of the Student Senate since its creation in 1969 when the Independent Student Party won the first election at the University of Kansas.
The advisory opinion was made after freshman Liberal Arts and Sciences candidate Turner Seals requested to be associated with a coalition in the 2021 election.
The Trial Court interpreted the Student Senate Rules and Regulations (SSRR), which serves a role similar to a constitution for KU’s student government, creating and defining the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Senate.
The Trial Court's reasoning was based on Senate removing most of the references to coalitions in the SSRR, because this changed the meaning of the rules and election code. The Trial Court interpreted that Senate intended to ban coalitions and formal associations in Senate elections. They also viewed the coalitions as potentially outdated.
Senate Student Rights committee chair Derek Dunn was not initially aware of the advisory opinion, which was not published online or to Senate’s public document repository on Microsoft Teams, but was provided to the Kansan.
Dunn told the Kansan that most references to coalitions were removed because Senate intended to move away from coalitions, but Senate’s failure to pass additional amendments meant coalitions were able to thrive without as many boundaries under the current rules.
When informed about the advisory opinion from the Trial Court, Dunn said he “definitely believe[s] that’s an overreach of power.”
The Trial Court’s new restrictions on how candidates display their names on the ballot conflicts with Article 7 section 11.2 of the SSRR which reads, “The election ballot must include the names of registered candidates, as requested on their Declaration of Candidacy Forms, unless the requested names are vulgar or obscene.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Harrison Baker responded to the potential conflict to the Kansan through email.
“Edits should be done in a way to either allow the presence of the word ‘coalition’ that does not conflict with other sections, or they should all be removed because they are outdated under the Trial Court's interpretation,” Baker said.
In 2019 students voted on a non-binding referendum asking if the coalition system should be kept or abolished. 81.9% of students voted in favor of keeping the coalition system.
Baker said that the Trial Court did not consider the referendum when writing the advisory opinion.
Both Act Up KU and KUnity were initially formed as coalitions, and then had to adapt to the ruling.
In an email to the Kansan, Act Up KU Vice Presidential candidate Ethan Roark said Senate cannot effectively support students without organizational systems like coalitions or parties. Roark said Senate must focus on engagement and can only do so with a system that is comprehensible and accessible to students.
“Coalitions are a proven and effective way to engage in elections and, without any clear replacement in this year’s election, we saw confusion and disengagement amongst students in all parts of the election,” Roark said. “I would advocate for Student Senate to allow the formation of not only year-long coalitions, but the formation of student political parties that can continue advocacy for platforms far beyond each election.”
Roark said parties would empower students beyond elections and make Senate more effective, accountable and transparent.
It is also unclear if the Trial Court has the jurisdiction to interpret the SSRR. Due to a conflict between the SSRR and the internal rules the Trial Court created for itself.
The Student Rights Committee on Wednesday passed amendments to the SSRR during a special session to resolve the conflicts in the SSRR and with the Trial Court’s internal rules. The new rules more clearly define the jurisdiction of the Trial Court, prevent advisory opinions from being used as precedent, and require a majority of seated justices to agree to create a majority opinion.
The proposed amendments still need to be ratified by the full Senate to go into effect.