Mike Lee’s populist campaign for BYU student body president

This article is part of a three-part series exploring the GOP candidates’ time as BYU students. Read the other articles here: Becky Edwards; Ally Isom.

On primary election night in 1993, the mood inside the Wilkinson Student Center was tense. The five presidential candidates for Brigham Young University’s Student Service Association – BYU’s equivalent of student government – anxiously awaited the votes to come in for who would have the chance to advance to the general election.

But around 8 or 8:30 pm, six anonymous letters arrived, addressed to each individual candidate and the service association’s faculty advisor. The letters declared the election had been rigged, a number of “tag ballots” were cast and an alternate “nominating committee” had been formed, declaring two winners.

With the prospect of a tainted election, the faculty advisor let the five candidates make a decision: they could hold another primary, or stand by the results that would be announced later that night. Then-candidate Michael Johnson, a finance major from California, said a second election would only lend credibility to the hoax ballot-stuffers. Another candidate, Clark Gilbert, then an international relations major from Phoenix, said abiding by the vote was “the only choice we had.” Mike Lee, the 21-year-old son of the then BYU president Rex E. Lee Jr., concurred, according to the Daily Universe.

The five candidates then made the “prayerful decision” to count the votes as they were. Three students moved on to the general election: Dawnese Noel, 780 votes; Mike Lee, 778 votes; and Trip Meredith, 628 votes.

Over 200 ballots were thrown out.

Newly elected BYUSA president Mike Lee, standing, speaks with outgoing president Stephen Jason Hall on election night in Provo on Feb. 18, 1993.

Nathan Selter, Daily Universe

Mike Lee went on to win the general election, campaigning on what his opponents claimed was a “radical” platform to democratize and restructure BYUSA’s election system. It would be nearly two decades before Mike Lee’s first run for the US Senate in 2010, but his populist streak – and shades of his conservative politics – were on display even in his BYU student body campaign.

When Mike Lee and his opponents announced their candidacies for BYUSA president, they submitted applications to a nominating committee – made up of deans, a faculty member, BYUSA leaders and randomly selected undergraduates. That committee interviewed applicants, vetting their seriousness in running and their qualifications. Those approved by the committee moved on to the primary election.

Lee’s campaign platform, however, was built on scrapping this model and making the election process more democratic. He also wanted to make the vice president an elected position, instead of one selected by the BYUSA president. “We need to give the decisions that affect the students back to the students,” Mike Lee told the Universe. A friend later told the Deseret News, “His campaign platform was, ‘My father ought not to have the power to choose me.'”

What resulted was a philosophical campaign that focused almost exclusively on litigating the identity and nature of BYUSA. In debates, candidates sparred over the question of BYUSA’s role: Was it a service organization, or student government? Should leaders be elected by students or hand-picked by administrators?

“We’ve given up a lot of liberty to gain a little safety.” – Mike Lee, 1993

The Universe dedicated multipage spreads to the discussion, allowing students and faculty to weigh in. The Dean of Student Life wrote an op-ed in favor of the nominating committee, noting that the word “government” is not mentioned once in the BYUSA charter. The Executive Director of Student Issues responded, calling that position “nonsense.”

Meanwhile, Mike Lee’s position as the student’s champion started to grow. “We’ve given up a lot of liberty to gain a little safety,” Mike Lee said in one debate; in another, “I do not see the difference between a government or a service organization.” His opponents doubled down on their insistence that the power to govern BYU lay solely with the university’s Board of Trustees, and not with any student organization.

“This university is run by inspiration, not democracy, and BYUSA’s mission is that of service,” Noel said in the final debate.

The final weeks of the election were haphazard. Some of the candidates, including Lee, faced restrictions for unnamed “campaign rules violations,” presumably minor in nature. Meredith, for example, told the Universe he “put up flyers on apartment doors without checking with the manager, and I guess that’s against the rules.”

“Being BYUSA president helped me to learn how to convince people of my ability to do a good job.” – Mike Lee, 1999

The ballot-stuffing scare during the primary sparked an uptick in Election Day security, including doubling the amount of poll workers, requiring ID cards to vote and scrapping paper ballots. Mike Lee emerged victorious, winning 39% of the vote, with Noel gaining 31% and Meredith 29%.

After the election, Mike Lee would become a fixture at campus devotionals, sitting on the dais behind his father and other university administrators. In addition to his studies, he dedicated considerable time to the student service organization. Despite the Lee election, still today BYUSA remains primarily a service organization. Lee, like other students of the era, listened to rock ‘n’ roll and enjoyed movies: His favorite musician was Jim Morrison, and his favorite movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Five years after he graduated from BYU, he told the Universe that his service prepared him for work in law and politics: “Being BYUSA president helped me to learn how to convince people of my ability to do a good job.”

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