<p>On Friday, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) electoral tribunal rejected More!’s appeal for a re-election for the general secretariat and women’s office. The appeal made allegations against the returning officers over defective conduct of the election.</p>
On Friday, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) electoral tribunal rejected More!’s appeal for a re-election for the general secretariat and women’s office. The appeal made allegations against the returning officers over defective conduct of the election.
The appeal was initiated by More!’s general secretary candidate, Elinor Mills and the women’s officer candidates, Dilpreet Kaur Taggar and Roset-Monet Wilson Scott.
Mills lost the tightly contested race by four votes to Stand Up!’s Reece Moir, while Kaur and Scott were defeated by Stand Up!’s Criselda (Aria) Sunga and Hannah Buchan by 45 votes.
The appeal was made on the grounds of disproportionate campaigning bans against More!, disputed ballots and plagiarised campaigning material for the general secretary position, and the possibility of tampering after the room containing ballot papers was left unlocked and unsupervised on September 10.
In both their submissions to the tribunal, the candidates detailed on their claims of unfair punishments towards More!, specifically on the last day of the elections, where More! had a full ticket campaigning ban for an hour due to a member flyering in Union House.
On the same day, More! faced an additional half hour full ticket ban following the revelation that a defamatory message about the Melbourne Socialists and Stand Up! Written by an individual with friends in More! was due to ‘political motivations’.
The message had previously led to a ticket organiser and four randomly selected campaigners being banned for two hours, before the disclosure of the individual’s intent in sending those messages.
Although the candidates admitted that the contents of the message was defamatory and unacceptable, they claim that More! did not have any significant advantage from the message as very few people were aware of its content and the individual had sent it in a private group chat with only a few members.
“It seems impossible that any individual social media messaging by a student could possibly have produced enough votes for us to be equal to the significant, lengthy and widespread campaign penalties that were applied because of it,” said Kaur and Scott.
According to More!, defamatory posters which accused a More! candidate of “hanging around right-wing racists” was never addressed despite an appeal sent to the deputy returning officer, Stephen Luntz.
In addition to the bans on Friday, a More! campaigner was given a ban for four hours for speaking to friends in an allegedly private conversation about More! within a polling area.
“They were already voting for More! prior to the conversation and they were asking how to vote for the elections, the More! campaigner simply indicated their friends to the polling booths,” said Mills during the proceedings.
Mills also argued that it should have been taken into account that the offence was an honest mistake from the More! member and didn’t warrant the “dramatic escalation” to the entire ticket being banned for an hour on the last day of the elections.
Throughout the proceedings, the tribunal addressed concerns over More!’s appeal for a re-election noting how costly elections are and that the money could be used for student services instead.
Kaur and Scott claimed that More! had strategised to ramp up female-targeted campaigning on Friday, and thus, the campaigning bans specifically might have affected the results for the women’s office.
Furthermore, More! alleged that these bans were disproportionate to the campaigning bans received by the Stand Up! Ticket.
In their submissions, they specifically mentioned the bans placed on Stand Up!’s president-elect Molly Willmott, who was banned from campaigning for four hours because of taking a photo of her ballot paper and posting it on Instagram. More!’s submissions mistakenly claimed that Willmot submitted a 1000 word essay to reduce her ban to 30 minutes instead, which Mills admitted to after seeing Stand Up!’s statement.
More! also brought up a campaigning incident that they believe didn’t receive a harsh enough penalty given the nature of the offence: a Stand Up! campaigner was caught handing out the ticket’s flyers underneath a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) flyer, while saying “free pizza and AGM” to people around the area.
More! argued that the flyer was misleading and an incentive to vote. In response to this incident, Willmot was given a two hour campaigning ban.
For the general secretary position, Mills stated that there were five disputed ballots that were ultimately given to the Stand Up!’s Reece Moir, which if not included, would have resulted in Mills winning the vote.
Mills also alleged that a document posted by Moir on the Facebook page ‘Reece for General Secretary – Vote 1 Stand Up’ contained content plagiarised from Mills’ own candidate statement more than two weeks before Moir’s statement.
“Personally, I do believe that a failure to check that Moir’s campaigning material did not plagiarise from another candidate for the exact same position before granting authorisation is a failure of due diligence on the part of the returning officers,” said Mills.
Both submissions from More! also raised concerns over the count room left unlocked given the tight races, especially between Mills and Moir for the general secretary position.
Stand Up! maintained that it is impossible to practically determine the effect of bans on the number of votes in an election.
Their representatives also alleged that if the appeals were to be accepted, they would be setting a dangerous precedent in the discretion that returning officers hold for monitoring behaviours in campaigns to ensure fair elections.
In response to the bans due to campaigning in polling places, Stand Up! believed that the ban placed on them on Monday which resulted in Willmott’s two hour campaigning ban was sufficient as it was a first offence and there were no other incidents that followed after. More!’s penalty was justified as there were two instances of campaigning inside the Union House and the returning officers did warn of harsher penalties the second time around.
Luntz admitted that if he had known that the campaigner was saying “free pizza” along with handing out the Stand Up! flyers, he would have enforced stricter penalties on the campaigner.
In a statement to the tribunal written signed by returning officer Jaimie Adam—represented by Luntz at the hearing—justified More!’s full ticket ban due to two violations of campaigning within exclusion zones.
In regards to the ban given to a More! candidate on Monday, Luntz alleged that: “The candidate’s direction to vote for More! was clearly audible to anyone in the polling area. It was not a private nor casual conversation. He was banned for four hours.” This contradicts More!’s statements alleging it was simply a private conversation with friends.
Luntz also justified the ban given to More! for the defamatory message as it was difficult to determine how widely it was circulated.He also stated that the contents of the message were wildly inaccurate and had to be taken very seriously as it contained “events that remain an ongoing and sensitive HR issue for UMSU.”
When the individual behind the message was questioned by the returning officers as to why this message was posted, she allegedly told them, “I want More! to win.”
More! stood by their claims insisting that the messages were posted on a private group chat and thus, a very small number of individuals saw the messages.
In response to More!’s allegations about the defamatory posters that alleged one of its members was “hanging around right-wing racists”, the returning officers responded by confirming the content of the posters and asserting that the accusations were factually true and that a verbal response had been sent to More! after the appeal was sent.
The submissions from Stand Up! and the returning officers claimed that Willmott’s ban for photographing her ballot paper was inaccurately described by More! in their statement, as Willmott’s initial four hour ban was reduced to a two hour ban because the prohibition of photography ballot papers was recently removed from the election regulations.
“The essay component of this ban was a joke penalty given by the returning officers following some light-hearted banter when discussing the ban with them that morning. Willmott did not have to complete an essay to get off the ban, she served it till the returning officers were satisfied that it was an appropriate punishment,” wrote Stand Up!.
During the proceedings, Luntz responded to claims of alleged plagiarism by Mills and stated that upon further assessment, the returning officers could not find sufficient evidence of plagiarism and that the issue of academic integrity is different to that of election regulations so, it does not add up to misleading conduct.
In regards to the count room being unlocked, Luntz stated, “Although the situation is concerning, we are quite sure of there not being any evidence of tampering”.
The returning officers’ statement stressed that, , “Irrespective of whether they affected the outcome, penalties are there for a reason and may, in close contests, make the difference. They would not be effective otherwise.”
The tribunal threw out all elements of More!’s appeal.
Regarding claims that the campaign bans were disproportionate, they stated that “the returning officers have the discretion on what it is they want to impose and we believe that the discretion wasn’t miscarried in this present case”.
“We bear in mind that the returning officer has to make decisions quickly in the spur of the moment and often with limited information…We don’t think it’s appropriate to judge the returning officers’ exercise of discretion.”
The tribunal agreed with the returning officers that harsher penalties are imposed for second-time offences and found no misconduct in imposing a full ticket ban for More!.
In response to the disputed ballots, the tribunal stated that the they only have the discretion to order a recount, which has already been conducted by the returning officer. The tribunal also echoed the returning officers’ stance on the alleged plagiarism and highlighted the difference between academic integrity and the election regulations.
As for the ballot room, the tribunal agree that the incident is disturbing but there has been no evidence of ballot tampering, and thus, refuted the suggestion that this may have affected the election results.