By Jack Parker
There were dramatic scenes at the Students’ Union Assembly tonight (12th March) as various protests were made against the Officer and Trustee election results declared on Tuesday.
Protests included a banner from the Durham University Labour Club reading ‘Defend Democracy’, people in fancy dress, and numerous interventions.
The meeting led to several major revelations, including the news that any vote which had RON as in its first-place preference was deleted from the election count, regardless of whether the vote ranked other candidates at all.
The Assembly was closed within 15 minutes of its opening, with one of the reasons cited being the University’s latest measures to control the spread of Covid-19 (Coronavirus).
Following a quick vote by delegates, the meeting became an Open Forum focussing on the issue of the Officer and Trustee election results.
Jonny McCausland, who chaired the Assembly and the subsequent Open Forum, opened the forum saying: “The purpose of this is to be a constructive space where we can ask questions to move forward. Please treat it as such.”
Any vote which had RON as their first-place preference was completely discounted from the election
Shortly after the beginning of the Assembly, 16 members of the Durham University Labour Club (DULC) left their seats and walked to the front of the lecture theatre, blocking the Chair, the SU Assembly Secretary and Gareth Hughes (Deputy Returning Officer) from view.
In a statement read by Spencer Payne, the DULC said they “roundly and fully condemn the handling by Durham Students’ Union of both the process, and the results, of the most recent officers’ elections, which amounts to nothing less than election rigging.
“The failure of the DSU to release the break down of votes is a dereliction of democracy. The reasons for the invalidation of these votes are vague and unsatisfactory.
“Pretending that voters are going to be ‘listened to’ and that their concerns are understood, at the same time as invalidating their votes, is nothing but pathetic and entirely laughable.”
The club’s statement was met with applause and a standing ovation from several attendees. The response was reprimanded by McCausland, who reminded those attending to show their approval of a comment through the BSL (British Sign Language) clapping sign, as is custom in Assembly.
The club’s statement was met with applause and a standing ovation from several attendees
Following the opening of the Open Forum, a statement from the SU Representatives of nine Durham colleges, most of whom protested by wearing Hawaiian-themed fancy dress costumes, was read aloud by Tom Chapman.
Chapman said the representatives “were shocked and appalled” by the results, and denounced the reasons for disqualifying RON as “clearly politically motivated”. They confirmed they would be taking steps to disengage from the Students’ Union because of the SU’s behaviour.
Anna Marshall, who was elected unopposed as Opportunities Officer told the forum: “I don’t want to be elected in an election that people didn’t think was legitimate.” She asked the representatives whether and when they envisage a re-run of the election to take place, and whether they expect her to stand down from the role.
Chapman responded that it was up to the SU to decide when any re-run would take place, but pointed out that it will be difficult for students next year to respect a “widely despised” institution like the SU when elections have been run in this way.
Gareth Hughes, the SU’s Deputy Returning Officer, confirmed that multiple complaints were received, one of which was upheld. He said the disqualification of RON was “unprecedented” as a decision, but was the “right decision given the circumstances of the complaint.” The SU’s official result declaration and statement can be read here.
“I don’t want to be elected in an election that people didn’t think was legitimate.”Anna Marshall, Opportunities Officer-elect
Hughes’s statement was interrupted early on by a protester throwing two recycling bins filled with mock-RON votes at him.
Hughes used his statement to explain the reasons for the delay in releasing the voting figures. He said Durham CIS (Computing and Information Services) were needed in order to access and publish the results, but the ongoing university-wide industrial action was preventing the immediate release of voting figures. Palatinate understands that the figures are set to be released next week.
In response to a question from an attendee, Hughes confirmed that any ballots cast with RON as the first-preference vote were removed from the count. In other words, even if a voter ranked the individual candidates in order of preference, as long as RON was their first-preference, their entire vote was discounted, and was not considered at all in the results declared on Tuesday.
This announcement was met with boos by those attending the forum. David Evans, the SU’s incumbent Postgraduate Academic Officer, said he did not “have faith in this ballot” following the revelation. He also denounced attacks on him and other officials within the SU.
The forum was concluded by a brief statement from incumbent SU President Kate McIntosh about the nature of the discussion about improving the SU’s democracy. She said: “I don’t want to be part of this conversation if we are treating each other like shit.”
The Assembly and Open Forum came at the end of a chaotic week for the Students’ Union. After the release of the election results on Tuesday, the Trevelyan College JCR President announced that his JCR would “begin investigating options and processes to disassociate Trevs JCR from the DSU.”
Earlier on Thursday, McIntosh announced she would not be replying to messages sent to her official Facebook account for a few days. She wrote: “I have received some nasty and unpleasant messages and have decided it is best for me not to open anything I get sent here at the moment.”
Images: Jack Parker