Kristina Smith and her friends didn’t know they were careening toward scandal as they danced to the music of Kanye West outside a Duke University dining hall in March, while distributing fliers promoting Ms. Smith’s run for student-government president.
The election police soon put a stop to the fun. The music came from an iPad, and someone snitched to the student-government attorney general—another Duke undergraduate—that the tablet violated Section 6 of the election code, which bars candidates from soliciting votes while possessing devices capable of connecting to the electronic voting system when balloting is under way.
Within hours, a student election board informed Ms. Smith it planned to dock 200 votes from her tally, imperiling her chances of victory. The junior public-policy major from Normal, Ill., filed an appeal, triggering a student-government showdown and a delay in the vote count, just as students were about to flee for spring break.
In the meticulously policed modern world of collegiate-government elections, students spot social-media manipulation and other offenses in real time, and then deliver harsh penalties.
In Ms. Smith’s case, she was notified of the allegation against her while she was still at the campaign event.
Some student-drafted election codes have grown to 30 or 40 pages in recent years, dictating nearly every aspect of campaigning—and making seemingly innocuous acts off-limits. The bulked-up codes often include new layers of rules to govern the use of mobile devices and social media. Student campaigns have been penalized for everything from improper use of Snapchat to failing to use approved hashtags. Candidates can be quick to inform on each other, leading to judicial reviews, penalties, and a fair bit of indignation.
“My team and I were just really shocked because I was confident we were not violating any election rules,” Ms. Smith said of the election-board decision. But she and her team—an organization more than 40 members strong that includes a head of social media, a web designer, and a chief data scientist—played it safe at the next campaign event and didn’t use an iPad.
At Smith College in Northampton, Mass., the election bylaws limit each candidate to $10 in campaign spending and one banner, which must be hung in the student center and cannot exceed 8 feet. The election code warns “glitter is strictly prohibited.”
The spending limits and one-banner rule are intended to make student government accessible to all regardless of economic status, said Annika Jensen, chair of the election committee at Smith. The glitter ban is out of courtesy to the custodial staff, she added.
Earlier this year at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, presidential candidate Kaeden Kelso and running mate Ysatis Jordan posted a photo of themselves on
standing next to “Cheryl the Bull,” a campus sculpture of the university’s mascot. Another student alleged this unauthorized running with the bull violated the election code’s ban on using likenesses of university figureheads, administrators or celebrities in campaign materials without written consent.
Penalties for such infractions can include docked votes and suspension of campaign activities, but in this case the charge was dismissed after an election-board hearing, and the candidates, who had been running unopposed anyway, won.
“The downside is that it gets more and more complicated,” said Pat Bosco, vice president for student life and dean of students at Kansas State University. Things seemed simpler when Dr. Bosco was elected student-government president at Kansas State in 1970, after an election in which students cast their votes on paper ballots at a single campus polling booth. “It was a wide open campaign” with fewer rules than today, he recalled.
Vote-docking, intended as an alternative to fines that some students can’t afford, amounts to “disenfranchising that population,” said W.H. “Butch” Oxendine Jr., executive director of the American Student Government Association, which runs conferences for student-government leaders.
The tighter rules “may be a function of our culture. We protect people more. We’re more insulated,” he said.
Taylor Pulliam, a junior at North Carolina State University, was initially ruled ineligible to run for president this year because the student government board of elections claimed he didn’t attend the required number of senate or cabinet meetings.
A special committee composed of other student-government officials, meeting at the student-unfriendly hour of 8 a.m. on a Friday, overturned the ruling after Mr. Pulliam provided selfies, text messages and witness testimony proving he was there.Mr. Pulliam said he was so overjoyed when his eligibility was restored he “kind of freaked out a little bit.”
Last year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, one student’s campaign was penalized with a 24-hour suspension when he allegedly circulated via Snapchat a video of the burning of a T-shirt with a rival campaign’s logo; a student court later struck down the penalty.
For this year’s ballot, the election committee made the rules “a little more flexible,” said Cole Hankins, a sophomore and chair of the committee. Policing the elections is still a tough job. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of sleepless nights,” he said.
At Duke’s Durham, N.C., campus, a 90-minute hearing for Ms. Smith’s appeal of the iPad violation was held after spring break. Seven student justices, most wearing black robes, sat at a table in front of open laptops. About 40 people filled a conference room, and hundreds more watched via a Facebook Live broadcast set up by the student newspaper, the Duke Chronicle.
Luke Farrell, a junior majoring in neuroscience and computer science who is Ms. Smith’s campaign manager, told the justices the iPad in question had been locked and placed on a nearby table, and wasn’t used to access the electronic-ballot system. He called the vote-docking penalty “obscene.”
The attorney general, Shreya Bhatia, countered that Ms. Smith’s iPad use showed “clear disregard and disrespect for” the device ban. Ms. Bhatia, a sophomore neuroscience major, said the election commission determined the number of votes to be docked by estimating how many students passed Ms. Smith’s campaign table that night.
The justices spent about four hours deliberating after the hearing, according to Chief Justice Dev Dabke, a math major heading to Princeton in the fall for a Ph.D. program. Eventually they concluded it was an unfair limitation on the right to free expression—as spelled out in the student-government constitution’s “Bill of Rights.” The justices restored Ms. Smith’s 200 docked votes.
Ms. Bhatia has no regrets about trying to enforce the device ban and said tough election oversight is needed “to preserve the integrity of the process under any circumstances.” She said she knew her decision wouldn’t be popular.
The day after the hearing, Ms. Smith was declared the winner. She called her campaign team and “we all convened at a restaurant to hug it out,” she said.Then she had to go to a class, “Legal Issues in Education.”
Write to Peter Loftus at [email protected]