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Rebelution disqualification overturned, but lawsuits could be pending 

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Undergraduate President-elect Elias Benjelloun knows he may have broken some rules.

He’s aware that his opponents photographed him and his supporters allegedly breaking a number of them during undergraduate student government elections earlier this month. He realizes that is what ultimately disqualified him from the results, even though he thoroughly trounced his competition.

His argument, which he presented to a student government appeals court Tuesday night, is that those rules shouldn’t even exist.

Campaigning in areas where UNLV forbids “expressive activity”?

“The [policy] was confusing not just for the candidates but members of the elections board and everyone in CSUN,” he said.

Making a claim some viewed as false in an official debate?

“It’s so vague and up to subjective abuse … The board essentially called me a liar.”

A supporter approaching students in line to vote?

“They couldn’t prove that he was campaigning within 25 feet of the polling booth.”

Benjelloun has an explanation for each of the complaints that resulted in his campaign ticket, called the Rebelution, being disqualified by a student election board.

On Wednesday night the Rebelution’s disqualification was reversed by the Judicial Council, but the chaos following the election reopened the debate over the rules.

Benjelloun’s allegation that his due process rights were violated in the disqualification hearing formed the basis for his judicial appeal, but others in CSUN accused the Rebelution of trying to weasel their way out of following the rules they agreed to.

“I think this is the Rebelution’s final effort to throw a hundred darts at the wall and hope one sticks, but it’s well within their rights to do,” said Vice President Jessica Lujan, who argued against Benjelloun before the Council on behalf of the elections board.

The CSUN Executive Board election on April 9 and 10 was, according to some within student government, one of the fiercest elections yet. Benjelloun, together with running-mates Kanani Espinoza and Vladislav Zhitny, clearly had the upper hand in support. Handfuls of students turned out in black “Rebelution” shirts pleading with students to vote. Their competition, Rebels Reunited, headed by current CSUN Senate President Jasmine Hicks, relied on the help of a few dedicated supporters and outgoing president Mark Ciavola. It wasn’t enough.

Benjelloun, Espinoza and Zhitny won by hundreds of votes in a record turnout, but like all CSUN elections, no one knows who wins for sure until every complaint filed during the election has been deemed valid or not. If a candidate or ticket has violated enough rules or violated a particularly egregious one, they can be disqualified from the election entirely, even if they’ve won. That’s what happened to Benjelloun, and he said he saw it coming.

Even while the election was still going on, Benjelloun said, his opponents were just waiting for his ticket to slip up, photographing him and his supporters throughout both days.

“[Zhitny’s opponent] Alex Murdock was walking around with his phone and I had my bullhorn yelling at students to go vote,” said Benjelloun. “It was just different mentalities.”

In student government elections where vote margins are razor thin and only a fraction of the student body cares enough to cast a ballot, the complaint process is an easy way to level the playing field. Due to the sheer amount of election rules and the relative ease with which candidates can violate them, candidates file an avalanche of complaints hoping to get opponents disqualified.

Nineteen complaints were filed by both sides during April’s elections, but only three of those were filed by the Rebelution. Benjelloun and his ticket mates were disqualified in the subsequent complaint hearing on April 21 for campaigning in forbidden areas, allegedly making false statements during a debate and because their name, the Rebelution, was already in use by a radio show at the campus radio station, KUNV 91.5 FM.

Benjelloun vehemently denied each case before the elections board to no avail. In the days following his disqualification, he built an appeal case on the grounds that his due process rights were violated during the hearing.

He alleges that the board violated his rights by admitting evidence against him that was acquired illegally, and because a board member, Dawn Matusz, failed to recuse herself from judging a complaint that she submitted herself.

Like many controversies within student government, this one played out in the Judicial Council, the CSUN student appeals court charged with ensuring that decisions made in CSUN follow its Constitution, bylaws and applicable state and federal law.

In a student government where internal drama is a regular occurrence, the Council is often the last resort for CSUN members who feel they’ve been cheated by the process.

Benjelloun’s goal? To see the Council invalidate the entire elections board meeting where he and his ticket mates were disqualified. If the disqualifications were upheld, his opponents would likely have been seated in their place.

As supervisor of the directors and a former elections director herself, Lujan represented the elections board against the Rebelution.

Lujan argued that Matusz didn’t have to recuse herself because CSUN election rules give board members the power to file complaints if they see a violation. Historically, board members have filed complaints and judged them without issue.

During the original complaint hearing, Benjelloun demanded that Matusz recuse herself not only from the item she filed, but from all similar items that had to do with complaints regarding him or his supporters campaigning in forbidden places.

“The reason I was not recusing myself is because I judge each complaint individually based on the evidence and there was no reason to recuse myself,” Matusz told the Council.

Benjelloun said her refusal to recuse herself constituted a bias on the part of the whole elections board, though Lujan called this “absurd.”

“They’ve always been allowed to file complaints,” Lujan said. “Nobody has brought up an issue with it in the past.”

In its decision released Wednesday night, the Council ruled that Matusz’ refusal to recuse herself constituted a due process violation.

The issue of illegal evidence sparked an exchange over the Nevada Revised Statutes, and was a key factor in the due process debate.

One of the violations that earned the Rebelution disqualification was that a recognized supporter, current CSUN senator Dakota Fischer, was photographed talking to students in line to vote at CBC. Election rules state that if a candidate or supporter is caught campaigning within 25 feet of a polling location, the candidate or ticket is immediately disqualified.

The photo didn’t prove Fischer was campaigning, just that he was within 25 feet of a poll, but an audio recording taken by Ciavola without Fischer’s knowledge featured Fischer admitting he was campaigning. Benjelloun said this was a violation of state law.

Lujan argued that the NRS codes in question were in conflict. NRS 200.650 appears to allow for one-party consent, which could make Ciavola’s recording legal, but NRS 331.220 says recording on state property requires consent of everyone in a recording.

In light of a letter written by UNLV Student Conduct Director Phil Burns discouraging the admission of such recordings, the Council ruled that the elections board’s actions constituted a due process violation.

The Council’s decision is a huge victory for Benjelloun and the Rebelution, but it’s not over yet. In the past, legal action has been a common recourse in high-profile elections disputes.

As of press time, Senate President candidate Alex Murdock could not confirm or deny if he was planning on taking legal action.

Lujan, herself involved in a dispute over an election she ran in Fall 2012 that ended in former Vice President Sara Farr filing suit against CSUN, said she wouldn’t be surprised to see further legal action. She said she felt the Council strayed too far from discussion on due process and instead allowed Benjelloun to discuss the specifics of his disqualification.

She told the Council repeatedly during the hearing that she was uncomfortable with the amount of discussion allowed on the topic of the original disqualifications. She said that the Council would have to hear from the original plaintiffs in the complaints hearing, which were Benjelloun’s opponents, in order to discuss the original disqualification cases. Otherwise, she claims, the Council would be violating the due process of Rebels Reunited.

“The Rebelution ticket kept trying to speak to the quality of the evidence, which isn’t for the judicial council to decide,” she said.

Benjelloun said he would be disappointed if Murdock and Hicks decided to pursue legal action.

“CSUN executive board elections are so contentious that I wouldn’t be surprised if Rebels Reunited took this to district court,” he said.
Lujan agreed.

“They certainly could and I would expect them to. I don’t see anybody kinda just packing up and going home on this issue,” she said.

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