Was the 2024 Student Candidate Vote rigged before it began?
It was the second Monday of the mid-semester break when it occurred to me. While the rest of you were focusing on relaxing and avoiding your assignment commitments, the results of the 2024 AUSA election had not reached me. A quick search later revealed that the executive, the body of students that make up AUSA had been selected, however, the coveted seat of the student representative on the university council had not. Anyone who looked for it, came across a banner on the university website that said the election process was undergoing a challenge.
None of this, of course, was directly communicated to the general population. Not until, on Friday 15th September, three weeks after the election did everyone receive an email. It was sent by the Returning Officer, the individual in charge of running the election and determining who is eligible to vote. The Returning Officer, Adrienne Cleland, wrote that there were errors in the process of the election, particularly relating to the “form of the ballot.” As a result, the election is to be re-held in its entirety. All new candidates must apply by the 10th of October, and the general populace can vote from the 25th of October.
The “form of the ballot” was simply too vague a reasoning for my taste. As such, Craccum can reveal that the complaint succeeded on two grounds. First, that the University did not accept that the merged ballot with the AUSA elections was “appropriate” in its form as a system. Second, that the restriction on eligibility for some candidates was not consistent with University statutes nor the Education and Training Act 2020.
Speaking to the first point, the form was not “appropriate” because it was merged with the AUSA election. According to the University, that made voting in both “compulsory.” Turnout sat at about 3000, which according to my calculations, is not the 35,000 Full-Time equivalent students (that is, squishing all part-time students into amalgamations of each other too) currently at University, and nor is it the 27,000 AUSA members. If it was compulsory in that sense, we are all liable for a fine.
As such, I approached AUSA’s recently reelected president Alan Shaker, who considered that the University believed that it was compulsory in the sense that once you opted to vote, you were required to vote in both elections. However, he comments that “It is important to note that both elections had the option of ‘No Vote’, meaning that any student could have voted in the Council elections and not the AUSA elections.” Claiming that voting was compulsory is a stretch on any definition of the grounds.
The other issue noted on the merged ballots was that the two elections were not properly differentiated. The University notes that instructions referred to only the AUSA portion. However, if one is to walk back to an email that the student body received a month earlier, on the 14th of August from Anne-Marie Parsons, the assistant returning officer, the university clearly differentiates the election in two sections. The eleven candidates are named, and their role is described before the AUSA election is even named. If the University wishes to claim that the way the election was run led to people believing that the two elections were intrinsically linked, they may want to look at the overall communication.
The second issue is much more technical. As the Returning Officer writes, “The eligibility requirements for candidates included a restriction in respect of students’ past employment at the University,” which breaches multiple statutes.
The first of those is the Council Appointments Statute 2023. It was passed at the end of last year, and replaced one of the same name from 2019. It set out various practises, but more importantly, the requirements for being a candidate. All that is noted is that one must provide an expression of interest within the required timeframe and also not be disqualified under the Education and Training Act 2020.
Section 277 of that Act, if you will forgive the dive into the law, prohibits people from standing on just four grounds. If you have been removed from a council before, are bankrupt, or are subject to a property order and can’t manage your own affairs. Nowhere in all of that is an exemption if you have already been employed at the University. Nor did this exception exist in the previous election, to my research.
In all probabilities, the exemption existed because there is a separate category for standing for the council: as a member of professional staff. Professional staff includes anyone employed in administrative, technical and library positions and such other positions as may from time to time be designated ‘professional staff’ by the Vice-Chancellor. That member of staff must be, however, “permanent, full-time,” which would preclude anyone who used to be one, as they would be, by definition, impermanent.
The ballot was live for two weeks without any questions or disputes. It was only after results had been announced that everyone was informed of a challenge. Given the record high turnout that Shaker estimates to be three times higher than ever before, it is a shame that the University’s response was to move the election into the middle of exam season. The Returning Officer did not have to rerun the election, they have used their discretion to do so.
The solution to it all, in the view of AUSA, is to merge the role of Student Representative and President of AUSA. Until 2019, this was the practice that was in place. Shaker believes that since the two positions have been split, there has been “division, confusion and a lack of engagement,” in election processes. At AUT, Canterbury, Lincoln, Otago, and Waikato this is standard practice. AUSA hopes to invite a conversation over this in order to strengthen its advocacy powers for the student body. It also seems, however, that there is nothing precluding the AUSA president from standing for the position and attempting to win the election normally.
There will be rampant speculation over who made the claim. Maybe someone was aggrieved when their application was denied? Maybe someone cared very deeply about the university statutes and spent an afternoon diving through them as I did. Ultimately, we will never know. But if you ever wanted to know whether a single individual could cost the University in external advice and in running a whole new election: the answer is yes.
In any case, a new election has been called for, and everyone ought to cast their votes in a month’s time. The student you elect has voting powers on oversight over the entire university, and in the event that our Vice-Chancellor steps down, has a role in finding her replacement. This is not empty power.