The Student Union’s spring elections will be postponed until the Fall 2020 semester, according to an April 23 email to the community from Union President Simran Tatuskar ’21. This includes the race for Union president.

Tatuskar and Union Vice President Kendal Chapman ’22 told the Justice in a joint email that the decision was driven by the Union’s focus on supporting students through the COVID-19 crisis, which they said has been “incredibly time-consuming.” 

“Managing an election and receiving online campaign emails does not seem to be what the student body needs now, and the Student Union team would rather focus our time and effort on supporting students at this difficult time,” Tatuskar wrote in her email to the community, adding in the joint email to the Justice that “organizing and running an entirely new style of election on top of it would have been incredibly difficult.” 

In the meantime, all current non-graduating officers will retain their positions going into the fall; their roles officially ended for the year on April 29. The move will have little effect on returning Union members filling their seats in the interim, but it means that at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, there will be vacancies for the Charles River, Off-Campus, and Foster Mods senator positions, which are currently held by seniors. The seats for treasurer, director of academic affairs and both representatives to the Brandeis Sustainability Fund, all held by seniors, will also be empty. 

Aria Pradhan ’21, a co-chair of the Allocations Board, told the Justice that the postponement of elections will not affect A-Board, which holds its elections in the fall. The current A-Board will remain in session.

As the University faces uncertainty regarding its ability to reopen in the fall, the Union plans to prepare during the summer for the possibility of online elections. A system for online elections “does not currently exist,” Tatuskar and Chapman said in the joint email, meaning the Union will need to create a digital version of the present format to ensure that everyone can campaign and vote. The switch to online elections would have the greatest effect on campaigning, which is partially in-person. Voting is already electronic.

The Union normally holds two rounds of elections at the end of the spring semester each year — the first for the Executive Board and the second for the Student Union Judiciary and the Senate, excluding residential quad senators. Under the current system, candidates are required to attend an informational meeting and then have four days to campaign before the election. On election day, the Union Secretary, who acts as the Chief of Elections, sends a link to each student with the ballot. The results are typically announced one or two days later. Because the Union has not yet solidified a plan for online elections, it is unclear if they would follow this same format.

Even if the University is able to reopen in time for the beginning of the fall semester, Tatuskar and Chapman said it will be difficult for the Union to know concretely when the elections will be held, but added that they ideally would take place “as soon as possible.”

For over a month, the Union had plans to postpone the elections, but waited to inform the student body until all of the logistics were figured out. Tatuskar and Chapman said in the joint email that they initially were not sure if some or all elections would be postponed, and they wanted to have all the answers before announcing the decision to the student body. 

Chapman first announced the postponement of elections at the March 29 Senate meeting, telling senators it “didn’t make sense” to hold an election for which candidates could not campaign. Senators, including Senator-at-Large Nancy Zhai ’22, supported the decision.

“I think we did the right thing to push back [the] election. Due to [the] pandemic, many students are stressed [about] other things (like moving out, sublet, dining, housing etc) which needed to be addressed ASAP,” Zhai wrote in an email to the Justice. “Retaining our current position[s] will help everyone ease the situation as much as we can.” 

However, the constitutionality of postponing elections is questionable. Article IX of the Union Constitution and Article X of the Bylaws outline election procedures, but neither includes language about rescheduling an election. Both do, though, set strict term limits of a year for most positions, including all members of the E-Board and Senate, making this decision potentially in violation of the Constitution and Bylaws. After conversations with the Judiciary, “this was decided to be the correct way to move forward,” Tatuskar and Chapman said in their joint email. Chief Justice Rachel Sterling ’21 did not respond to the Justice’s requests for comment.

“The biggest thing is that this is an unprecedented situation and there is no language outlining what to do in this circumstance,” they said in the email, adding that the Union’s decision was influenced by other universities’ student governments — including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — delaying their elections.  

“This is not a new process, as senate quad senators already stay on as interims over the summer into the following school year until new quad senators are elected in the fall, but now we are expanding this practice to all eligible positions,” they wrote.

When fall elections do happen, social distancing — which will also potentially affect in-person classes — may make campaigning look different. The Union holds “Meet the Candidates” events during each election cycle where candidates set up makeshift booths to interact with and answer questions from potential constituents. But with national and state guidelines in place to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people and avoid large gatherings, the feasibility of this style of event will come into question. An alternative to in-person campaigning, keeping social distancing in mind, is “yet to be determined,” Tatuskar and Chapman said in their email.

New officers will also have to undergo a greatly accelerated training process. New-member training normally takes place over a month-long period after spring elections. To bridge that gap, the Union will make digital guides about each position “to help facilitate the transition for all new incoming members,” Tatuskar and Chapman wrote. The Union will also train new treasurers during the summer break.  

“Since I’ve already been on the [U]nion for 2 years and know its needs and dynamics well, I feel that the learning curve for myself will not be very overwhelming to navigate,” Zhai said. She added that for new members, “the [U]nion leadership is currently doing their best they can to ease the transition, and I’m sure they are more than willing to be a supportive resource.” 

This is not the first time a major Union election has been postponed. During the Fall 2009 semester, elections were rescheduled to a week later than planned after the polling website used for voting left out several of the candidates from the list of options. 

—Editor’s Note: Foster Mods Senator Trevor Filseth ’20 is a Forum Staff Writer.