ANALYSIS: Why UMSU Might Have Another Election13 September 2018
This year’s University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) elections were hotly contested but nothing was closer than the races for the general secretariat and the welfare office. With fewer than a dozen votes separating each ballot (amongst thousands of total votes), this election was certifiably, undeniably, toight. The returning officers of Above Quota Elections have declared the welfare office has been won by More! and the general secretariat by Stand Up!. But Elinor Mills, the candidate More! endorsed for general secretary, and More!’s candidates for the women’s office, Dilpreet Kaur and Rose-Monet Wilson Scott, have lodged an appeal with the electoral tribunal against the returning officers. Now, the electoral tribunal may issue a declaration that a new election be conducted.
What are the grounds for an appeal to the tribunal?
The grounds to contest the election are plainly put in section 46 of the UMSU Electoral Regulations. Specifically, the claimant (in this case More!) needs to prove to the electoral tribunal that there was “a defect in the conduct of the election which has materially affected the result”. To put it clearly, you must prove that the election was cooked in some way that discriminated against the candidate who lost, and then prove that such discrimination was the reason they lost. Most of the time, the end results are clear enough that you cannot prove that the cooked behaviours that went on during the elections had any material effect on the outcome. The frustrating reality is that student politicians can do some really dodgy stuff without consequence unless it affects the outcome of the election. But that is a whole ‘nother article on political behaviour and culture! Onto the drama!
Why go to a whole new election?
To be really clear, this ruling would not throw out the whole election, just the outcomes that have been proven to be affected by a “defect in the conduct of the election”. You can keep the outcomes with big margins or that don’t involve More! and Stand Up! (like the University Council election), but if you prove that a very close More! and Stand Up! contest turned on a defective decision, a tribunal ruling is on the table.
The tribunal could declare one way or the other, or order a recount. If the appeal is successful, the appropriate outcome is to start from scratch and declare IT IS ON! It’s like the AFL Premiership—if you draw on the big day you just do it again next week, no other funny business. With a new poll we can really see who can flex their electoral muscles and bring home the prize. Alternatively we could flip a coin (it happens more often than you might think), but that sucks.
Grounds 1: The Bans
Typically bans are issued by the returning officers against campaigns to punish groups who violate campaign rules and to ensure they do not attract an advantage for their transgressions. Bannable offences include: campaigning in Union House, harassing other campaigners, and other general scummy acts. Bans can be issued against individuals and whole tickets, depending on the returning officer’s ruling.
Campaign bans are often the most dramatic aspect of the elections. You can call it tensions boiling over; you can call it the stress of the week. Sometimes bad people say worse things for no discernable reason other than to hurt their opponents. Other times people just do something dumb, but no matter what if you break the rules the returning officers will be on the scene. If two campaigners are getting way too competitive over votes, the returning officers will keep an eye on them, ban hammer at the ready. The difficulty lies in the fact that nearly all election behaviour comes in shades of grey and rarely is there not a story about someone being provoked, being too dumb to follow the rules, or not being a campaigner who did it. Sometimes there are even conspiracy theories about what really happened. Then the returning officer has to make a decision in the eye of the electoral storm about how to deal with it. It is not an easy job and expecting perfection is foolish, but for nearly always the returning officers do the right thing. But if they don’t—well, you have an appeal to the electoral tribunal on your hands.
With an evenly distributed average of 80 votes per hour across the week, an hourlong ban of all campaigners is a critical blow to tightly contested ballots. More! would need to prove that the flawed or invalid campaign ban cost them the necessary votes to win but given that we are talking about getting as few as six extra votes over the course of an hour at multiple polling stations, the argument is strong. While this is the easy bit, poking a hole in a decision of the returning officer is harder.
If the various campaigning bans issued against More! were not conducted appropriately, or a ban against Stand Up! was disproportionately lenient and disadvantaged More!, it could be reasonably argued that there was a defect in the conduct of the election. This part of the regulation turns hard on the facts and the conduct of the returning officers. While, personally, I am very confident in the professional standard and rulings of the returning officers, More! would only need to drive a small wedge between the rulings of the returning officers and the judgement on the facts by the electoral tribunal, given there is such a small margin. While I do not know all the facts about the bans and what happened, this still remains the biggest challenge for More!’s case.
Grounds 2: Unsecured Ballots
Over the course of the whole election, from build-up to months after the fact, the security of empty and filled ballots is important in ensuring the integrity of the election. If you have unsecure ballots floating around, you can seriously undermine an election. To avoid accusations that people have stuffed ballot boxes, that people have changed the votes after the fact, or thatsome ballots have gone missing, ballot security is vital.
So when the count room where all the ballots are counted is unsupervised and unlocked, you introduce the possibility of ballot tampering. While this is a very serious allegation, the real difficulty lies in the fact that the onus of proof is with More! to prove that the unlocked room was the cause of their having lost the election. While there is not any proof currently, and a really small window of time for any funny business, it is not inconceivable that tampering has occurred. If the burden was flipped the other way around, and the returning officers had to prove that the outcome was not affected by the insecure ballots, we might have a different story. While, on a balance of probabilities, the returning officers have a good case, I doubt very much that they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the ballots were not tampered with. Probably fair too considering we are talking about a stupol election and not a murder.
However if either argument were successful you might open a big can of worms. While we can pretty easily figure out which outcomes were affected by the bans, the unsecured ballots is more open-ended. It is possible that every outcome determined after the room was unsecured has been sullied. This could throw doubt over students’ council, and a bunch of committees alongside welfare and general secretary. That being said, it would still need to be proven on the facts which outcomes were affected and to what extent, and—based on what limited information is available to us—it is very unlikely that there is any evidence tampering took place, let alone such significant tampering.
So what’s going to happen?
While both grounds for appeal carry with them merits, More! needs to hone in on specific examples of wrong decision-making by the returning officers. The evidence of ballot tampering is practically nonexistent. On balance, appealing against the bans might prove easier to argue, but it will prove difficult to poke holes in the conduct and the judgement of the returning officers. Though this is only because there is no evidence of ballot-tampering. At the end of the day, the difference was razor-thin, and goes to show that every vote counts.
Tyson Holloway-Clarke ran in the UMSU elections last week with The Biggest Blackest Ticket for a position on University Council. He is not affiliated with More! or Stand Up! but was endorsed by both tickets.