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The backs of students holding signs outside of a large building.

Students protest on the University of Michigan campus, where administrators halted voting on a set of ballot initiatives Thursday.

Sben Korsh

A three-day student voting period on two competing ballot resolutions asking University of Michigan officials to take a stand on the Israel-Hamas war was slated to end Thursday night at 10 p.m. But well before the deadline, administrators shut down the voting.

In an email to the student body, university vice president and general counsel Timothy Lynch said the referenda were canceled due to election interference by a large coalition of pro-Palestinian student organizations that supported one of the resolutions. Known as AR 13-025, the initiative called on the university to recognize that the people of Gaza are “undergoing genocide,” “acknowledge that 75+ years of Palestinian-Israeli tensions have been created through systems of settler colonialism” and establish a committee to investigate the ethics of the university’s investments. Such a committee could consider divesting from companies with ties to Israel, including those that manufacture weapons.

The pro-Palestinian coalition sent a mass email to students Wednesday morning—which Lynch said was “unauthorized”—encouraging them to vote in favor of AR 13-025 and against the pro-Israel AR 13-026. The latter resolution called on the university to share their plans “to keep all students safe in their homes, in their classes, and on the broader campus” and to provide increased mental health support for students impacted by the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The coalition’s email, Lynch said in his message, violated the university’s Responsible Use of Information Resources policy, which prohibits the use of university resources, including email lists and Listservs, “to campaign for or against a ballot initiative or candidate running for office or to conduct a political campaign.”

The incident is the latest example of tensions between supporters of Israel and Palestine boiling over on college campuses—and of attempts by administrators to navigate them. Instead of playing out in protests, rallies, die-ins or debates, however, this conflict unfolded through the ballot box. Still, it drew plenty of attention from alumni, government officials, donors and other outsiders; Lynch’s email said the university “received numerous calls to block, delay, or oppose two resolutions being considered by the student body under the auspices of its Central Student Government” but declined them at the CSG’s request.

Now, many students are hoping the vote will eventually proceed in a future special election, but it is unclear whether the university will allow the referenda to be considered again.

Advocates for AR 13-025, as well as student government leaders, expressed confusion about Lynch’s description of the email as “unauthorized”; at Michigan, mass emails to students must be distributed through the registrar's office, they said, meaning that the message would have had to be received and read by a university staff member before going out to the student body.

“There’s an administrative process in place during which an administrator reviews and approves the email before sending it out,” Sarah Tsung, a communications chair for Michigan’s graduate student union, one of the organizations that signed the Wednesday email, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “The correct procedure was followed. Someone literally authorized it to be sent.”

The university did not answer a series of questions, including one about this discrepancy, instead directing Inside Higher Ed to Lynch's email.

According to Abigail Peacock, the elections director for the CSG, the email did not violate the student government’s election integrity policies; while CSG prohibits emails in support of candidates, it has no such policies for ballot initiatives—though she noted that could change in light of this incident.

Overreach or Intervention?

The decision to cancel the election has spurred mixed reactions.

In a press release, the CSG elections commission denounced the university’s decision to end the referenda as “overreach.”

“The Commission isn’t advocating for either petition-resolution, or anything else on the ballot,” members wrote Thursday. “We have seen unprecedented student activism on campus around these elections, and we support all students’ efforts to amplify their voices. But we don’t support one side over the other. We’re here to impartially administer the CSG elections. We’ve done that through polling tables, content-neutral awareness emails, and signs throughout buildings all across campus. We side with no one except the student body at large. We support students’ rights to vote in alignment with their beliefs on all of these issues. Sadly, the administration seems to disagree with this position.”

The university’s chapter of Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, called for the university to cancel the vote and launch an investigation into the policy violation on Wednesday, after the pro-Palestinian coalition emailed the student body. But in a statement posted on Instagram Thursday, the group didn’t mention the canceled referenda; instead, it stated that that the debate in recent weeks “has stifled any potential for nuanced conversations and genuine dialogue,” noting that Hillel and the campus’s Jewish community have been attacked on social media. Hillel also spoke against Islamophobia, antisemitism and bigotry.

Other opponents of AR 13-025 celebrated on social media. Yinam Cohen, consul general of Israel to the United States Midwest, wrote on X, “The administration did the right thing by stepping in and stopping this vote on an exceptionally anti-Israel resolution, which accused the State of Israel of committing genocide from going forward.”

On the same platform, Stand With Us, an Israel education nonprofit, wrote, “We applaud @UMich for canceling a school-wide vote on a resolution that demonizes Israelis, due to campaign violations by anti-#Israel groups. We are proud to have supported student leaders & faculty who mobilized a powerful campaign to stand up for their community!”

Meanwhile, the group of organizations that signed Wednesday's mass email condemned the cancellation of the referenda in an Instagram post Wednesday evening, saying they were “deeply disturbed by this decision by the University administration to silence the voices of their students.”

Sben Korsh, a graduate student who organized Michigan’s newfound Jewish Voice for Peace club, a pro-Palestinian organization led by Jewish students, and helped lead the campaign for AR 13-025, said he was not surprised that the university canceled the vote. But he criticized the administration for singling out the groups that sent the email as the cause of the cancellation.

“It’s really such a technicality that they’re canceling it on,” he said, noting that proponents of AR 13-026 also used assertive campaign tactics, such as sending out text messages and even flying a plane over campus affixed with a banner that implored, “Follow the facts! Vote no on AR 13-025!” (A spokesperson for Hillel said the organization did not fund the plane.)

But nothing in the university’s or CSG’s policies appear to prohibit such tactics.

“Students texted other students—from their dorms, their fraternities and sororities, etc.—to urge them to vote. That is completely compliant with the rules of the election,” the Hillel spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed via text.

Hillel recently held a fundraiser called Meet this Moment, which stated on its webpage that the money collected would go toward a get-out-the-vote campaign for AR 13-026, as well as things like security enhancements for the organization. The fundraiser, which earned $46,931, is now closed.

In a post Wednesday, the group’s Instagram clarified that donations to the organization were earmarked for security, staff and educational programming. The Hillel spokesperson did not say whether any of the Meet the Moment funds had gone towards campaigning.

“Any accusations of improper use of financial resources are unfounded, and we are concerned that they are based on common antisemitic stereotypes,” the spokesperson wrote.

Future Consideration

Peacock said she hopes the university will allow the referenda to be reconsidered in a future election but she has not yet spoken with administrators about it. Officials were in touch with Meera Herle, CSG’s president, on Wednesday after the coalition’s email went out, although the two parties couldn’t agree on how to proceed.

“I believe that the University hoped CSG ourselves would cancel the voting on the two petitions as a result of the perceived ‘threat’”—that is, the coalition’s email on Wednesday morning—Herle said. “This was something I expressed concern about and refused to comply with. CSG’s governing documents do not give me or any other CSG official the authority to terminate an election in the middle of the voting period, which is why we denied this request.”

She said there's a chance that the resolutions will not be allowed for a revote unless they go through the same process that got them on the ballot this election—which involves gathering at least 1,000 student signatures, passing public hearings and being heard by the CSG Assembly. If the resolutions fail to pass in the Assembly, they become ballot items, in accordance with the student government’s constitution.

Michigan did not respond to a question from Inside Higher Ed about whether it would allow the resolutions to be considered again. Lynch said in his initial email that the university would not release the number of votes each referendum had received as of the time the vote was ended Thursday morning.

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