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ASUC Elections Awash in Controversy, Placing Results in Doubt

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday July 07, 2006

Lies, lawsuits and chalk marks: It’s politics as usual on the UC Berkeley campus. 

The Associated Students of UC Berkeley (ASUC), the governing body representing Cal’s 33,000 students, held elections in April, but the new batch of executive officers remains a mystery, following allegations—and a ruling—that the dominant party engaged in illegal campaigning then lied about it. 

In early June, four members of Student Action, the university’s largest political party, were disqualified from the election after sweeping the executive slate, composed of a president and three vice presidents. 

Cal’s nine-member student Judicial Council ruled that Student Action party chair Suken Vakil had committed perjury when he gave dishonest testimony when questioned, in an earlier trial, about his party chalking slogans near six campus polling sites. 

Campaigning within 100 feet of the polls, provided that the polls are properly marked off, is a violation of ASUC by-laws. Vakil is currently out of the country and could not be reached for comment. 

Now, Student Action is appealing that decision. A hearing is set for July 15. 

In the meantime, outgoing ASUC President Manny Buenrostro, of Student Action, who did not return a call for comment, has issued an executive order temporarily placing the disqualified candidates in office, an order that was quickly contested. (He rescinded an earlier order to unilaterally recognize the candidates, which was also challenged.) 

Complicating matters are the new/ disqualified officers, who, according to the conservative blog Cal Patriot, are wielding executive power by issuing orders and making appointments. 

Cal students contribute monthly fees to ASUC, which is charged with allocating funding to student groups. Elected ASUC officials include a president, three vice presidents, an apolitical student advocate and 20 senators. Student Action is the major party, followed by CalSERVE and the Defend Affirmative Action Party, neither of which ran an executive slate this year, then SQUELCH!. 

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If the Student Action appeal were successful, the four disqualified candidates, Oren Gabriel, Vishal Gupta, Joyce Liu and Jason Chu, would be reinstated and eventually sworn into their respective seats, according to Election Council Chair Jessica Wren. 

If not, the Judicial Council could mandate a recount, she said. However, the League of Women voters, which acts as a third party to ASUC elections, has called the legality of such an event into question, Wren said. Another option is to hold a new race in the fall. Elections typically cost about $50,000, she said. 

Student Action could also threaten to take the case to state or federal court. According to Ben Narodick, SQUELCH! candidate for external vice president, this could affect ASUC’s autonomy, because the court may rule the fate of the elections away to the university. A court case could also incur major costs, he said.  

ASUC “would have to hire a lawyer, and that would come out of money that student groups would get,” he said. 

Vishal Gupta, the spokesperson for Student Action, who also ran for external vice president, declined to respond to specific questions about the election.  

The last UC Berkeley student government case to go to trial was in 1984, Narodick said, though according to Sonya Banjeree, Judicial Council Chair, it is not unprecedented for a party to get disqualified. A similar case came up in 2004 with the Defend Affirmative Action Party, and was settled out of court, she said.  

The election saga has unfolded on Cal blogs like CalStuff, Beetle Beat and the Cal Patriot, where some pundits are calling the reputation of the ASUC into question. 

“The people who truly care about the ASUC are worried about its credibility as an organization,” writes Chris Page on Cal Patriot. “They know if the situation goes to court, the ASUC’s autonomy will take a hit.” 

ASUC Auxiliary Director Nadesan Permaul, who advises students, says the election is a valuable learning experience for students, comparing it with the presidential election showdown in 2000, the recent Supreme Court ruling in Vermont over campaign financing and the evergreen political hullabaloo closer to home. 

He said, “While others may think it’s unusual, just look at Berkeley city politics.”