Following the public release of preliminary results from the Spring 2022 Undergraduate Student Government (USG) election on Wednesday, specifics of the USG Constitution’s language and election bylaws have sparked confusion over whether Referendum No. 3 has passed.
In the day since the voting period ended, the USG Chief Elections Manager Brian Li ’24 has fielded an objection to the voting count process by Myles McKnight ’23, who has argued that exclusion of the “abstain” votes from the total vote tally in calculating the majority is unfair.
In communications shared with The Daily Princetonian by McKnight, Li rejected McKnight’s objection and — though acknowledging a “miscommunication” — affirmed the USG Constitution’s policy that abstain votes are not counted in the total vote tally.
USG has yet to produce a public statement confirming any results, and is expected to do so no sooner than Friday, April 15, at noon.
Referendum No. 3, which calls for the University to halt the use of Caterpillar construction machinery on campus projects, has garnered significant controversy on campus and nationwide.
The majority vote required to pass this referendum hinges on the manner in which the abstentions are counted. The USG Constitution states that abstentions are not counted in the total tally, meaning that under these rules, Referendum No. 3 passed the election with 52.2 percent of the vote, or 1,124 votes cast in favor. 424 students participated in the election but marked “abstain” on Referendum No. 3.
Screenshots of messages sent to The Daily Princetonian between Li and Tigers for Israel (TFI) President Jared Stone ’24 apparently show Li explaining the opposite policy for counting abstentions. The March 28 text messages appear to show Li explaining that abstentions would, in fact, count in the total number of votes cast.
The messages seem to provide an example in which 10 votes are cast: “4 in favor, 3 opposed and 3 abstain,” the messages read. Another message from Li clarified, “That’s 40% in favor.”
If the rules seemingly outlined in Li’s message were upheld, the referendum would not meet the majority threshold necessary to pass. The USG Constitution states, however, that the threshold “means more than half of the votes cast by individuals entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions.”
McKnight wrote an email to Li late Wednesday night posing an objection to the preliminary results based on screenshots of these messages.
Li responded to McKnight via email on Thursday morning, writing that, “We acknowledge that there has been a miscommunication per the informal text exchange between himself and Jared on the 28th.”
He added, however, that “there has been no change in official USG guidance.”
“It was and remains that abstentions are not to be construed as votes, either in favor or against a referendum question,” Li wrote. “Neither did guidance provided on ballots indicate that abstentions would be counted against a referendum question.”
Li also pointed out that there may only be one opposition party, with one student leader, per USG bylaws. Reid Zlotky ’23 filed as the formal leader of the opposition party to Referendum No. 3 prior to the start of the voting period.
“In Reid’s filing as an opposition party, he did not report that he was collaborating with another student group on campus as an opposition leader,” Li wrote. “For this reason, Tigers for Israel is not a ‘lead opposition group’ under existing election regulations.”
At 12:52 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, McKnight responded to Li, claiming that Li told Stone “at best an absurdity, at worst a face-saving lie.”
“He communicated to Jared his conclusion that abstention votes would be counted, and an entire portion of the community predicated its opposition messaging, op-ed writing, and campaigning on that conclusion,” McKnight wrote.
McKnight continued, “As though it were a magic trick, he’s concocted the exact opposite interpretation [of the USG Constitution] after the results have come in, thereby reversing the result.”
He urged Li in the email that the USG should, “count the abstain votes, or void the referendum and hold a revote,” arguing that if the USG does not do so, they risk damaging “the trust you once held with the Jewish community” on campus.
In a message to the ‘Prince,’ McKnight argued that Li “cannot communicate to opposition campaigners a clear determination regarding how abstentions will be handled and then invert his interpretation of the Constitution after the fact, reversing the outcome of the election.”
“Win or lose,” he added, “the opposing community will honor the outcome of an election conducted in accordance with basic principles of procedural fairness.”
Zlotky, the formal opposition leader for the referendum, told the ‘Prince’ he believed McKnight’s objection to be “damning,” and that he supports the idea of either counting the abstention votes or conducting a revote.
President of the Princeton Committee on Palestine and Referendum No. 3 Sponsor Eric Periman ’23 told the ‘Prince’ in a message that he believes “both sides in this matter must respect the election process as laid out in the USG Constitution and [PCP] look[s] forward to seeing a certified election result released soon.”
Stone and Li denied multiple requests for comment on the matter.
Andrew Somerville is a Co-Head News Editor who has covered USG, University, and COVID-related affairs.