Plans announced by Durham SU this week for individual students to register as the head of a verified campaign for ‘re-open nominations’ have been met with confusion and anger from students, including some within the Students’ Union itself.
The new rules, which claim to act on a University review of SU election procedure, will mean RON – historically the ‘none of the above’ protest option in student elections – will be treated as a recognised candidate, operating under all the same rules and regulations as any other candidate. SU Assembly, the representative body for students in the SU, will not get a vote on these changes.
RON would also be open to sanctions if the Returning Officer deems it in breach of election rules, as happened last year, when 58% of student votes for RON were deleted. In the same year, a survey showed satisfaction with Durham SU was the worst of all 137 UK universities.
Joseph Gellman, the SU Representative for Josephine Butler College told Palatinate that the SU’s changes misunderstood the very nature of RON as a “none of the above” option. He also said: “I really don’t like the idea of RON being considered a candidate.
“The whole point of RON is that it represents a position of being unhappy with all the candidates and desiring nominations to be reopened. Considering RON as a candidate is thereby oxymoronic.”
This sentiment was echoed by several students online, including Joshua Dexter, a third-year chemistry student, who said: “This is just an attempt to try to frame a vote of ‘Re-Open Nominations’ as an official party/ candidate option, rather than the ‘none of the above’ that it is supposed to represent.” Another wrote: “literally not the point of RON”.
Jack Pearce, President of Cuth’s Ripped Off, argued that the new system would not encompass all the reasons people might vote RON, saying: “Making it so that RON has to have a registered campaign team sort of defeats the point of having the option.
“Many people vote RON for different reasons, whether an objection to the way an election has been run, to express dissatisfaction with an institution or to expressly demand to have a new selection of candidates.”
However Yash Raju, the Vice President of Durham People of Colour Association, felt that the policy was a step in the right direction. “I’m skeptical about the degree of success that creating an official RON campaign will have with regards to keeping a check on much of the harm we saw last year. But given the impact of the last campaign it is clear that regulation is warranted.”
The official RON campaign would have to “appropriately seek to influence an election” and “focus on the merits of the manifestos of individual candidates”. RON also has to be specific to an individual election, so an SU-wide RON campaign which covers all candidates running in the election like the one seen last year would not be possible under the new rules.
This redefinition of RON means that secondary votes cast under the single transferable vote (STV) system will be properly allocated to the correct candidates. The SU were unable to do this last year due to technological limitations after their decision to disqualify the unofficial RON campaign for rules violations, meaning second and third preferences for the 58% of Durham who voted RON were deleted completely.
During the election process, concerns were raised about the treatment of some candidates on social media. This prompted several representatives from a campaign supporting RON to sign a letter apologising “to everyone that has been made to feel unsafe and received abuse” as a result of the campaign.
Since then, the SU has carried out a Democracy Review in a contract with private consultancy firm MiraGold, which found that the students most dissatisfied with the SU are opposed to “protecting minority voices and creating spaces in which they thrive”.
The recent statement stresses that “the changes to our 2021 elections are not the result of the Democracy Review research”. The changes will be followed by a Q&A open to all students, the date of which has not been set. The SU campaign period will start on 15th February, with voting taking place on 21st February. The SU has also encouraged any questions about the new rules to be submitted here.
Image: Amana Moore