Students voice frustrations, praises over Vision slate’s disqualification

By Martha Layne, Assistant News Editor

Students took to social media to voice opinions regarding the removal of the Vision slate from Tuesday’s Student Government Board elections ballot following a complaint by Tyler Viljaste — some praised the board for upholding the rules of campaigning, while others saw it as an underhanded move to eliminate the competition.

The Vision slate — composed of one presidential candidate and three board candidates — was officially removed Tuesday morning at roughly 6 a.m. following a night of hearings with the board’s elections and judicial committees, after Viljaste, the presidential candidate from the Brightside slate, filed a complaint regarding the Vision slate. The Vision slate was removed after posting unapproved posters in residence halls as well as handing out slate-branded shot glasses to first-year students in primarily first-year residence halls without approval from the elections committee.

Joe Wright, a junior mechanical engineering major who planned on voting for the Vision slate, said he found out about the decision from a texting group for the Vision campaign Tuesday morning. He said although he has spoken via Instagram comments to Viljaste, who explained his perspective, Wright still believes Viljaste and others in SGB worked in a “corrupt way to try to win this election by suppressing the voice of many students without any substantial reason.”

“From my perspective with the current information I have, it appears that Tyler and some others within SGB have acted with their own self-interest by removing the Vision slate in its entirety from the ballot the night before the election,” Wright said. “This is extremely concerning to me as a student, as I no longer feel like any of the remaining candidates represented what I wanted to see from SGB members.”

But Jacob Strenkowski, a first-year intended physical and political science double major and a member of SGB’s First-Year Council, said he agreed with Viljaste’s decision to shine a light on the actions of the Vision slate. Strenkowski said he returned home to Sutherland Hall on Sunday night to find posters from the Vision slate hanging up on his floor, which he “suspected” were an election violation. These suspicions were confirmed to him when Viljaste asked him to serve as an infraction witness at the hearing. At the hearing, Strenkowski said he felt the Vision representative “unnecessarily attacked” Viljaste with false accusations.

Strenkowski found out about the distributed shot glasses at a First-Year Council meeting, where one member brought the glasses up to Viljaste. He said Viljaste, being “someone who cares about a fair election,” asked the student to serve as an infraction witness at another hearing.

Strenkowski spent Tuesday creating videos in support of the Brightside slate and engaging with those with opposing viewpoints in Instagram comments. He said he was “surprised” to see others not doing the same, considering how important the SGB presidency is.

“In my experience with the Student Government Board, I have found that many students who are not involved with the organization underestimate how much work said organization does for the community,” Strenkowski said. “To ensure that the Student Government Board is doing a maximal amount of positive work — and thus a minimal amount of negative work — it is imperative that the people with authority are the most qualified for the positions that they hold.”

He said he always intended on voting for Viljaste and recent events did not sway him otherwise.

“Even if I was not associated with Tyler, I would have wanted to vote for him because of his campaign goals focused on mental health, financial wellness and diversity and inclusion. On top of that, I personally believe that he was the most qualified candidate for the position based on his success in his previous and current positions within the Student Government Board,” Strenkowski said. “While many people were unhappy with Tyler and the rest of Brightside due to the conditions surrounding the ejection of the Vision slate, I fully believe that the Vision slate is at fault for their own actions, not Tyler for reporting them.”

Multiple other supporters of Brightside, Viljaste and the SGB decision were contacted and all declined to comment.

Tara Ponitz, a junior civil engineering major who also planned on voting for the Vision slate, said she was frustrated because she felt she wouldn’t have enough time to research other candidates following the Vision slate’s removal from the ballot. Ponitz said students need to be aware of the removal of the Vision slate and the surrounding hearings because it is an infringement on their democracy.

“Students should absolutely care about this situation because it is completely un-democratic to remove an entire slate the night before the election takes place — it is completely unfair to the slate (who have devoted countless hours to their campaign) and to the students who planned to vote for them (who now have no time to reconsider their options to a full extent),” Ponitz said in an email.

She said SGB should have postponed the election after the two board committees disqualified the Vision slate to allow students, as well as endorsing clubs and organizations, to respond properly.

“At the absolute bare minimum, the election should have been postponed in order for students to make a new decision and for clubs/organizations to endorse other candidates,” Ponitz said. “However, nothing was done by the SGB, showing the complete disrespect that the SGB has for its fellow students’ time and effort.”

Another Vision slate supporter, Varsha Suresh, said she was “disappointed” upon hearing the reason behind the judgment, as well as the lack of transparency during the process. Suresh, a senior economics-statistics joint major, said recent events show the breaking down of democracy and the silencing of voter voices.

“Today we saw the lack of a democratic process and the gross misuse of power. Tyler made it abundantly clear throughout the election process that he did not like the fact that Vision brought in SGB outsiders,” Suresh said. “I think it is very unfair to have such a body to determine the course of punishment. In addition, the timing and speed of the decision process warrants suspicion.”

Suresh said Harshitha Ramanan’s upset win to become SGB president next year is a step in the right direction to combat the board’s “elitist” perspective.

“I am very happy about the fact that Harshitha won,” Suresh said. “It is very important to have an SGB outsider come in and really change the system. The current system is very corrupt and elitist and needs to be changed. At the end of the day, we saw this popular sentiment prevail.”

Ponitz said while she’s also happy Ramanan won, she still feels the elections should’ve been postponed after the Vision slate was disqualified.

Strenkowski said he “welcomes” Ramanan into her new position, but is more concerned with Viljaste losing “unfairly.”

“I truly feel that Tyler’s loss was primarily a result of the misinformation that was spread about him by the Vision slate following their ejection. I believe that Vision was embarrassed to admit that they had clearly broken established, common-sense policies — as evidenced by both their spiteful behavior on election day and my own personal interactions with the group — and as such, to save their pride, shifted blame onto the person that brought their misconduct to light,” Strenkowski said. “Had Vision not gone on this temper tantrum and misinformation spree, I have no doubt that many more students would have firmly known that Tyler was the right candidate for the job.”

Other students, like Kiera Dickey, a junior marketing and business information systems major who has known Viljaste since their first year at Pitt, originally planned on voting for him, but after his actions in this situation, rethought the decision and voted for Ramanan. She said she feels Viljaste’s actions had serious consequences.

“I feel bad that Tyler lost,” Dickey said. “To me, he made a mistake and it cost him the election.”