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April 20, 2022 1:06 pm

Princeton Student Government Upholds Appeal Over Anti-Israel Referendum

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Princeton University in New Jersey. Photo: Yakinodi / Flickr

The Princeton University Undergraduate Student Government (USG) announced Wednesday that an anti-Israel referendum had passed, but that it upheld an appeal objecting to the handling of the voting process and will neither support or oppose the measure before the university.

Inspired by the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, the referendum, voted on from April 11-13, called for a boycott of the Caterpillar Inc. construction company over its business with Israel.

When preliminary results of the vote leaked online, opponents of the referendum claimed victory, with reports last Wednesday showing vote tallies  — 44% in favor, 40% opposed, and 16% abstaining — that fell short of the majority needed for adoption. But reports the following day indicated a win for the Caterpillar referendum, counting 52.2% in favor and 47.7% opposed, with abstentions excluded.

The discrepancy sparked a debate over whether the USG Constitution stipulates that abstain votes cast in referenda are counted. In a formal objection to the results sent to USG last Wednesday, opposition leader Myles McKnight explained that the USG Elections Manager had assured activists that abstentions would count. That guidance informed the campaign strategy of a Tigers for Israel group and other opponents of the measure, he said, who encouraged students to vote “abstain” if they preferred not to vote “yes” or “no.”

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Heard in the Senate on Monday, the appeal, The Daily Princetonian reported, challenged “the actions of Chief Elections Manager,” arguing that USG’s election official “is now committing to a representation of the ‘abstain’ option that is inconsistent with his representations communicated before and during the election period.”

Other senators disputed the appeal’s merit, urging USG to mind “the impact that proposals such as nullifying or redoing the election would have,” while also conceding that the allegations over the handling of the vote are “troubling,” according to The Daily Princetonian.

In a statement Wednesday, the USG revealed that during a subsequent closed-door Executive Session, members voted to uphold the appeal of referendum opponents, by a margin of 15 votes in favor, 5 votes against, and 4 abstentions.

At the same time, it held that the Caterpillar referendum had passed — while pledging not to officially endorse the BDS measure on behalf of students.

“The USG will not make a statement on behalf of the student body in favor of or against the referendum,” the USG said. “Under the provisions of the USG Constitution, with a majority of student votes, Referendum 3 passes; however, the USG Senate voted to uphold the appeal as detailed above and has voted on the substance of this paper as a remedy.”

That document, “Paper on Referendum 3,” included both the text of the referendum and the appeal, and will be sent to university officials, according to The Daily Princetonian.

During the earlier public debate over the appeal, USG Treasurer Adam Hoffman, its principal author, argued that “it is reasonable to believe that the results of the referendum would have been different if abstains were represented accurately during the election period.”

He was supported by Myles McKnight, who last week contended that the USG official’s initial interpretation of the constitution should stand.

“We told hundreds upon hundreds of students that it would be better to abstain rather than not vote at all,” McKnight said. “The difference between the yes or no votes was merely 95. Just 95. At the same time, over 400 people abstained. That error margin of the election should give anyone reason enough to think that it is at least possible, most definitely plausible, and perhaps even likely, that Brian’s misstatement materially affected the outcome of the referendum.”

Ahead of the vote, students had warned that adopting a BDS-inspired campaign would foster a “hateful and un-constructive environment for Jewish and Zionist students.”

Lead proponent of the Caterpillar referendum, Eric Periman, who is also President of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, denied on Monday that USG’s election guidance materially affected the vote’s outcome. “There is absolutely no proof whatsoever offered by this appeal that voting students en masse, at large, believed that their abstentions, which by common vernacular means to refrain from the act of voting, would somehow be counted in the final tally for the referendum,” he said, according to the Princetonian.

Responding to the USG’s announcement Wednesday, the Israel on Campus Coalition called for the Princeton University administration to reject the “divisive referendum and the antisemitic BDS campaign.”

“Last week, a majority of Princeton students sent a clear and decisive message by rejecting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) referendum. In the days since, the Undergraduate Student Government tried to change the rules of the game that all sides understood from the beginning,” said Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

“While we are relieved USG will not make a pro-BDS statement on behalf of the student body, this entire episode has contributed to a climate of hostility and fear for Jewish and pro-Israel students.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated

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