Razor-thin margin in SGA election gives Burke four presidents

After an unprecedented series of events, Burke will have four Student Government presidents for the 2020–21 school year.

Two rounds of voting could not create definitive separation between the tickets of Jonah LeCompte ‘21/Marlon DeBose ’21 and Sidney Howlett ‘21/Leah Winston ’22, so administrators declared the election a tie, meaning all four candidates will serve as co-presidents.

Dean of Students Vanessa Aird explained that the initial election held on May 7th was close enough between the two tickets to necessitate a runoff on May 8th. “They were literally neck and neck; it was extremely close. We decided a runoff would be the best thing,” she said. “Not only does a runoff help us determine what the student body wants, it offers the students who voted for the other two teams a chance to cast their votes.”

After last year’s co-presidents Nathan Weisbrod ’21 and April Watts ’21 chose not to run, this year’s election cycle began with a total of four pairs of candidates in the race. Jay Sims ‘22/Ingrid Gruber ’22 and Jackson Adams ‘21/Skye Garrett ’21 were on the ballot for the initial election but did not make the runoff.

Several of the candidates said that their initial reaction when they heard about the runoff was anxiety at the prospect of another day of uncertainty. “All of us had been campaigning so hard the past few days … I just wanted it to be over,” said LeCompte.

The purpose of the runoff was to produce a more definitive result and allow one ticket to emerge victorious, but that never happened. Aird, along with outgoing Director of Student Activities Kelly Falk and incoming Director of Student Activities Jamie Schmutter, monitored the vote totals throughout the day and watched as neither ticket could pull away. “It was an exact tie several times [over the course of the day], and again we ended up with extremely close [results],” said Aird. “At that point I reached out to [Head of School Damian Jones], Jamie and Kelly.”

Faced with this result, Aird, Falk, Schmutter and Jones had to make a crucial decision with no precedents to look at for guidance. “We had no playbook for this; we had never been this close. We had to figure it out right away,” said Falk.

Aird explained that she interpreted the result as the students saying they were confident in all four candidates’ abilities to serve as co-presidents, so allowing all four to hold the office was the logical solution. “We all felt like this was a really great opportunity to do something new, something fresh,” she said. “Damian was particularly excited, and we all were, about the opportunity to be an example for collaborative leadership.”

Once they reached this consensus, Aird contacted the candidates to set up video calls to reveal the result and put forth the administration’s proposal. All of the candidates said that they felt massive anxiety between receiving Aird’s email and hearing the result from her. Howlett and Winston were on FaceTime together trying to figure out whether Aird would tell them if they won or lost, and LeCompte said he spent a long time analyzing her email to get a hint as to the news he was about to receive. For all of them, the tie came as a complete shock, but they soon began to see the potential advantages.

“It was a situation where you had a different opportunity in front of you that you weren’t expecting at all, and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, especially since we are in a pandemic,” said Howlett.

LeCompte said the presidents-elect spoke briefly the night of the runoff, but agreed they needed some time to process the result. “We met the following morning, and the meeting went really well. After that I felt like we could get a lot done,” he said.

One area almost everyone cited as a possible challenge with the four-person presidency was communication. “Everyone needs to know exactly what they’re doing and what other people are doing so all of this can run smoothly,” said Howlett.

“We’re already trying to figure out ways where the administrators can just talk to one person and that information can be branched out to the rest of us in other ways,” added LeCompte.

The administrators also expressed confidence that this would not be an insurmountable challenge, pointing to the fact that they had already met productively with the four presidents several times. Falk mentioned the importance of making clear that messages came to the student body from the office of the presidency and not just from one individual’s opinions.

Schmutter mentioned the possibility of mixed pairs leading assemblies (for example, LeCompte and Howlett or DeBose and Winston). “We’re a cohesive unit and we’re going to try really hard throughout the course of the year to show the school that we are a cohesive unit and we are all one,” she explained.

Voter turnout was about 90% in the first round of voting and fell slightly to about 85% in the runoff. According to Falk, this was lower than last year’s live online voting but comparable to previous years where voting took place via physical ballots at school. Burke never releases exact vote totals, but Falk described this year’s margin as “way closer” than ten votes, which would have been considered a close election in previous years.

Falk and Schmutter speculated that the student government could amend the constitution at some point this year to establish a precedent for future years with close results. “[One idea would be] the candidates have to win by X number of votes, and if they don’t, this will happen,” said Schmutter. “We will be more prepared next year for an outcome like this.”

For the time being, however, the focus will shift back to the present as the four students take office and begin preparations to enact their policies. All of them are optimistic about what the future will bring, despite the unclear outlook about what the next few months will bring. “Merging our ideas into one, we can cover a lot more ground as a unit. We all have strengths to our leadership styles that balance well off each other,” said DeBose. “We have to find a good balance of who’s gonna do what; we’re gonna have individual roles. We have a lot of resources just from having four people.”