After many posters, countless Facebook groups and much campaigning, all the union elections for this academic year are over. Many of you will breathe a sigh of relief, but for us here at The Siren, elections have been on our minds long after they ended. We had a lot of fun covering the Sabbatical elections last term, but several issues arose which led our editor Elena Cresci to do some research into the nastier rumours surrounding campaign week…
For anyone inside the union bubble, campaign time is utterly exhilarating; whether it’s Sabbatical election campaign week or the run up to the one-day Executive elections. Candidates have been extremely positive about their experiences while campaigning; win or lose, it’s an experience to be gained from.
Yet this overall positivity has been tainted somewhat by rumours of cheating and unfair practice running the Swansea Union rumour mill. According to several veterans of union elections, accusations of unfair practice are commonplace during a week in which tensions are at their highest between potential future union officers. In comparison to past elections, this year’s Sabbatical elections could almost be considered a quiet affair, with no disgraced candidates disqualified for negative campaigning or other such behaviour.
Yet, in some respects, the online campaigning introduced to this year’s elections certainly threw an entirely different spin on the entire week. Both of the SU’s returning officers, being the officers responsible for running the union elections, agreed that online campaigning changed the playing field and complicated the rules somewhat.
Assistant Returning Officer Shona Vrac-Lee said this year “was the worst year I’ve known for complaints.” While Deputy Returning Officer Stuart Rice did not necessarily agree, he did believe there were more issues which candidates complained about, mainly due to a lack of cohesion and understanding where the rules were concerned.
According to Mr Rice, “[What we need is] a simple, easy to follow set of rules.” While the rules were recently updated to allow for online campaigning, the original set issued to candidates were written at a time when it wasn’t taken for granted that every student had a mobile phone. Because of this, there were a number of grey areas in the rules, sometimes leaving candidates unsure as to what was allowed and what wasn’t in a land mark year for student elections.
In terms of complaints, the race for Education Officer was one which was plagued with allegations, and upon questioning candidates, it became clear that unfair practice is a touchy subject with our union politicians. Candidate Ceri Parker felt any instances of unfair practice would certainly have “had a detrimental effect on me and others who also ran in my position.” Speaking to The Siren, he said: “Through alleged cheating, you could argue other candidates gain so much from [unfair practice], and with such a small amount of time to campaign, it’s difficult to make up the deficits”.
The Easter holidays saw the creation and eventual deletion of a group directed at the Education Officer-elect, Rhiannon Hedge, which claimed she had broken several rules in her successful campaign to office. When asked about the Facebook group, Ms Hedge said: “The first I heard about it was when I was in the library attempting to write my dissertation and I suddenly received a barrage of texts from irate friends asking if I’d seen it and was I ok. In truth, it did hurt my feelings for the ten seconds before I remembered that I’d won my election by 137 votes, which is a much bigger number than 7 [there were 7 members in the group].”
Specific complaints against Ms Hedge’s campaign appeared to be directed particularly towards two instances; one in which business cards were stuck to computers in the library and the other which saw the chalking of a campaign slogan on one of the pathways in Singleton Park leading into university. While the Returning Officer maintained the second was against the rules, being classed as damage to public property, the first was an instance in which a new style of campaigning found itself potentially in breach of the rules. Mr Rice said: “There was this question that this would be an unfair advantage as you’re not supposed to campaign in a place where people are voting , so I took [the business cards] away and I kept them. But I didn’t want to take any further action against people because I thought that was punitive enough. It wasn’t explicitly a breach of the rules in the sense that other things could be.”
In many respects, many of the instances alleged as cheating were not, in fact, against the written rules. The key problem here seems to be the rules themselves, which sorely need to be updated and clarified. Mr Rice spoke of the need for ““a simple, easy to follow, set of rules. They’ve been updated recently in some areas but they could probably benefit a little bit from an overhaul.”
In the course of my research, I discovered there is meant to be an Election Working Group which meets at least three times a year in order to address potential problems such as those which arose this year. This group has not met in almost two years. If there’s anything to be learnt from the controversies, hearsay and rumours of the Sabbatical 2011 elections, it’s that the rules in their current form just can’t hold up to the numerous ideas and avenues campaign groups have the opportunity to take. Above all, instead of pointing fingers and bickering amongst ourselves, we need to work to ensure the rules surrounding campaign week are tightened and clarified, not only to prevent confusion, but also to prevent potential loopholes from being taken advantage of. After all, if we’re too busy accusing our Officers elect of cheating, then we’ll have no time to hold them to account on their manifesto promises.
What do you think counts as unfair practice during elections? Have you ever run for a position and found the rules confusing? Comment, tweet, Facebook us or e-mail, we’re all ears!