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Democracy Suspended at USF as Student Government Fails at Virtually Everything

USF did what USF does best and created controversy out of nothing.

Before we get started, I want to make this abundantly clear: I know Voodoo Five is primarily a sports blog, but this situation is so absurd that I feel obligated to inform the USF community. Students are being marginalized and ignored, and I can't allow that to go undocumented on my watch. Let's get to it:

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read the next two paragraphs if you have yet to watch Season Two of House of Cards.

Like millions of college students, I enjoy a little Netflix from time to time - specifically House of Cards. If you're not familiar with the show, it chronicles sociopathic politician Frank Underwood's rise from Congress to President of the United States without ever running in a Presidential election. Through conniving tactics and corruption, he ascends to Commander-In-Chief and quips, "democracy is so overrated."

That story is purely fictional, but those words could not ring truer at USF's Tampa campus right now. The show's producers imagined such a meteoric rise without a single vote cast as a slap in the face to democracy - but how about a real-life story of a student becoming SG president after losing two consecutive elections? If you're not familiar with the situation, allow me the pleasure of updating you, but do not hold me responsible for losing all faith in Student Government - and possibly humanity - after reading.

On February 24-27, SG held elections for its new Student Body President and Vice-President. The election is held annually nine business days before spring break, and the winning ticket holds office for one year starting at the conclusion of spring semester. There were three tickets vying for the office this year:

  • Brandi Arnold with Shaheen Nouri, running under a platform entitled "SOAR" (Safety/Opportunity/Advocacy/Ready). Their website can be seen here.
  • Jean Cocco with Rhondel Whyte, running under a multi-point platform dubbed "We the Students". Their website can be seen here.
  • Danish Hasan with Harsh Patil, running under a platform of accountability, parking reform, transparency, and tuition equity. They did not have a website, but their Facebook page can be seen here.

On February 28th, results were announced: Cocco took 48%, Arnold 39%, and Hasan 12%. Cocco won by a margin of 424 votes. Now typically, elections work where the candidate who wins the most votes takes office. That's the foundation of American Democracy - the candidate who we the people like the most wins. But it's not so simple at USF. It never is.

According to SG's disordered, chaotic election statutes, a candidate must win a simple majority to be declared winner - 50% plus one vote. Because of this a runoff election was declared between the top two tickets- Arnold and Cocco. It was held on March 4th and 5th, and on the 6th the results were announced: Cocco took 52% and Arnold 48%.

"Aha!", you may think, "that's the end of it!" Well hold on to your seats dear readers, because the ride has just begun. You didn't really expect things to be so simple with our straightforward, efficient university did you?

After the numbers were announced, all logic was thrown out of the Marshall Student Center's office windows and in USF's tradition of disregarding student concerns, Arnold was officially announced President-Elect. That's right. The two-time election loser was declared leader of our 47,000+ student body and director of SG's $14 million budget despite lacking what is called a mandate - a call by the people to lead. If anything, the students mandated that Arnold not be their leader. Twice.

You may ask, "how this is possible?" Even at USF, where the squirrels are more receptive to student concerns than administration, elections have been the sole remaining vessel through which students can irrefutably make their voices heard. There's no room for interpretation in elections - it's just one person wins more votes than the other, and that's it. Numbers don't lie. Well Student Government clearly has learned a thing or two from the administration it works with - that no matter what, under rain or shine or undeniable election results, never, ever simply give the students what they want. And that's what SG has done.

In a move that would have Underwood salivating in jealousy, Arnold was declared President by virtue of disqualification of Cocco's campaign. Over the course of four weeks of campaigning, the Arnold/Nouri ticket filed at least 14 grievances against the We the Students campaign. Now one would imagine that a candidate would not file a grievance unless they suspected a serious infringement, but only four of the complaints were deemed serious enough to stick. That's right, 71% of the grievances - which are meant to be a resolute, last-ditch method of discipline - were tossed. This leads us here to suspect that Arnold, in fear of defeat, filed grievances over anything beyond a mean look in the quad. Actually, we should be able to tell you for fact what the grievances filed were, but SG has withdrawn into a shell and is refusing to release any information or offer any statement on this spectacle. All we know is Student Government, under the direction of President William Warmke, is essentially making a mockery of itself, embarrassing the student body, and leaving a stain of incompetence on the entire university system.

SG placed itself in this situation with its nonsensical election statutes. It's been two and a half weeks since the first election and we still don't have a clear winner. Cocco is appealing the grievances in front of the USF Supreme Court this Wednesday (March 19th), and according to the SG Constitution, should the Supreme Court not reach a verdict by 10 business days after spring commencement (commencement is May 2; ten business days would be May 18), the Senate will then choose a president. The Constitution dictates this as such:

"If the election process enumerated in the Constitution and the Statutes cannot select an official and sworn Student Body President and Student Body Vice President within ten business days of the University Spring Commencement, then the Student Senate of the previous term shall select from the certified pool of Campaign Tickets, a joint Presidential and Vice Presidential ticket to be the President and Vice President. This shall occur even if there is pending litigation or dispute."

So basically if the Supreme Court takes too long, democracy will transition from suspension to expulsion and the Senate will temporarily choose a president who will then have to be confirmed in a fall midterm. But here's where things get really fun. Before reading on, go back and read that quote from the Constitution again.

Read it? Good. Now all I want you to note from that is one thing: the Senate of the previous term shall select the president ten business days after Spring Commencement, which would be May 18th. However, the same SG constitution states:

Senators shall take their oath of office and vote for their officers, as outlined in statutes, prior to the beginning of their term, which begins the first Monday following Spring commencement

What I want you to take away from that quote is this: the date when the new Senate is sworn in - the first Monday after spring commencement - is May 5th.

So should there be no President chosen ten days after commencement, the newly-elected Senate will already be sworn-in, but the previous Senate is supposed to pick the next President? What the statutes fail to address is that the previous Senate is powerless once the new Senate is sworn-in. So should no President be chosen by the 18th, is the previous Senate going to storm the Chamber and battle the new Senate for their power back? It sounds as reasonable as these poorly-thought-out statutes. There's some classic USF thoroughness for you.

Now if somehow SG manages to clarify those tragedies of statutes and actually picks a President and Vice-President, they will only be in power until a student body vote of confidence, as stated here:

"If the President and Vice-President have been selected by this particular section, then they shall be subject to a Student Body Vote of Confidence in the next Mid-Term election. Should the President and Vice-President be removed by the Vote of Confidence (2/3rds/+1) of the electorate vote "no-confidence", then the Oreder of Succession shall determine the new officers and a Special Election shall take place four weeks after the Mid-Term election."

What you can take away from this is that the Vote of Confidence will happen during fall midterms, when the President and his administration is supposed to be in full productivity mode, not campaigning mode. Should the President not receive the minimum number of votes in this midterm, there will be another election, in which no candidate could again receive a majority or could be tossed or could leave USF to join a travelling circus, because clearly anything is possible with Student Government.

We want to get down to the bottom of this. We want to find out the facts. We've been searching for information but there is none to be found. Student Government has shut its door and is refusing to cooperate. Grievances filed by both parties are public record, but Election Rules Committee Supervisor Sayf Al-Deen Hassouneh has refused to release them. There are no copies of the grievances available online or elsewhere. The only known information about them is the nature of the 4 grievances which stuck against Cocco - and these were only acquired after a bitter fight over a Freedom of Information Act request between the school newspaper, the USF Oracle and SG. The specifics of the stuck grievances can be found on the USF Oracle's website - right next to an editorial dismissing them as trivial and declaring that under no circumstances should they silence the voice of a majority.

Hassouneh is an appointee of current SG President Will Warmke, who ran on a platform called SHINE - Sustainability, Honesty, Innovation, Networking, and Equality. If you take a peek at the description of the platform on the SG website, the first paragraph of the Honesty section states:

"Will & Scott believe in taking transparency to a whole new level by being 100% clear with all of the details of the initiatives they are progressing on, and ensure that the student body is aware of why they are enacting these initiatives."

Does refusing to release public record documents sound like transparency to you? In the over two weeks since this disgusting debacle has unfolded, Warmke's office has offered a grand total of zero statements. No comment, no information, nothing. All it has done is ignore the voice of the people and supervised the declaration of Brandi Arnold, who was mandated twice by a majority of the people to not to be their leader, as President of the University of South Florida student body.

As a USF student, I am embarrassed of this entire breakdown in legislative order. I am ashamed my tuition money is funding an organization that can't even control what should have been a simple situation. Why can't SG inform us of the situation as it develops? Why is the people's back-to-back choice for President being denied his office so vehemently by this current administration? Why can't SG write rules above a fifth-grade level? I want answers, and so should anyone reading this.

Editors Note: Ryan Emison was instrumental in the creation of this article and if the site allowed for multiple writers to be credited- he would be. We thank him for his contribution.