Administration interfering with Chief ballot question

As a member of the Student Election Commission (SEC), I write to inform the public that Referenda C does not appear on the ballot as submitted by the sponsors of the referendum question.

The “yes or no” question submitted by the sponsors stated: “Do you support the reinstatement of Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of the University of Illinois?”

Late Monday, I learned that the University administration had been working with one or two members of our nine member SEC to add language to this referenda statement. While other referenda have supplemental language submitted by sponsors, never as an undergraduate or as a law student at this University have I seen the administration impose their own language on a referendum question. The administration’s language states: “The result of this referendum question is not binding on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, the body legislatively charged with oversight of the symbol.”

Of course, the implementation of any student referendum may or may not be implemented by the Board of Trustees. 2008 Student Election Packet F, II G (“The implementation of any passed referendum is the responsibility of the new Illinois Student Senate, and other relevant campus groups and administrators.”).

However, the administration has attached a label to one referendum question, suggesting it may not be as effective as the others on the ballot. These changes to the ballot were taking place on the day before the election without the knowledge of the vast majority of the SEC.

There may be valid reasons for informing students of the practical outcome of referenda, but the ballot is not the place to do it. In fact, the administration and the Daily Illini have taken the opportunity to report on the possible outcomes of this referendum question. Ebonique Wool, Has Campus Changed Since Chief Left?, Daily Illini, Feb. 21, 2008 (“‘The referendum won’t be binding to the Board of Trustees to reinstate the Chief as the symbol of the University of Illinois,’ said Renee Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs.”).

Such state-imposed labels on a ballot are unconstitutional because they influence the voter “at the most crucial stage in the election process – the instant before the vote is cast” Cook v. Gralike, 531 U.S. 510, 512 (2001). While only a court can decide whether this precedent applies directly to this student election, I am disappointed that the administration has taken action that is inconsistent with the spirit of our constitutional law. Moreover, the ballot as it appears today was not available for public review, even to members of the SEC, until hours before the election began.

Late Monday night the SEC voted on whether to change the language on the ballot. While others joined me in voting to remove the language, the SEC ultimately decided to leave the language in as imposed by the administration at the eleventh hour, partially because it was likely too late to make any changes. Nevertheless, I believe that students have a right to know the nature of the administration’s interference with student elections.

Dan Bolin

Member

Student Election Commission