Voting for the Durham Students’ Union Officer elections is now underway, amid widespread calls on social media for students to use the elections to protest against the SU.
Seven separate elections are taking place, for the Officer positions of President, Welfare and Liberation, Opportunities, Undergraduate Academic, Postgraduate Academic, and two elections for Trustees. Voting is open until 5pm on Wednesday 26th February.
The SU elections use the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, meaning voters rank the options in order of preference. The candidates are gradually eliminated until one option achieves a majority. All candidates are listed alongside the option to Re-Open Nominations (RON).
Discussion during the voting period is being dominated by a growing campaign to vote to Re-Open Nominations rather than vote for any of the candidates.
A Facebook page supporting the Re-Open Nominations option – ‘Vote RON in the DSU Elections’ – was launched just hours before the voting window opened. The page has been liked by several college JCR Presidents and Vice-Presidents.
The RON campaign page has been liked by several college JCR Presidents and Vice-Presidents.
In a post, the page’s founders write: “We believe a RON vote is the only way to force the SU and university to address the issues that common rooms and the wider student body have with the way SU democracy is being enacted and the power imbalance between common rooms and the SU.
“The Vote RON for the DSU campaign is in no way a personal statement against the candidates running in the election.”
The page also elaborates its four main reasons for voting RON, including its claims that the SU is “inefficient”, “far too politicised”, “run undemocratically”, and “not representative of the student body and not fit for purpose in a collegiate university.”
Those behind the campaign told Palatinate: “The vote RON campaign exists to highlight what we perceive are core problems with the way Durham SU operates, and the undemocratic nature of this election in particular.
“Voting Re-Open Nominations is the best way to make it clear that serious change is needed in the way the DSU is run.”
However, student Dan Takyi criticised the RON campaign, telling Palatinate: “They say it isn’t personal, [and] whilst that may be true at its heart, intention doesn’t always line up with actuality. This campaign has brought many of the candidates to tears, which now makes it personal.”
“There is an ugly shadow cast over the formation of this campaign”Dan Takyi
Takyi also questioned the decision to run a RON campaign this election, calling its timing “very suspicious when you look at the candidates. Durham could perhaps for the first time have strong minority candidates representing them and coincidentally now the opposition has chosen to be heard?
“Whilst this may look innocuous, to those who have had a lifetime of being on the end of these kinds of ‘coincidences’ will tell you that it isn’t as innocent as you would imagine. There is an ugly shadow cast over the formation of this campaign and to dismiss it would be from a position of privilege.”
The RON campaign quickly gathered momentum following a tweet posted on SU President Kate McIntosh’s official account on 19th February.
While the tweet has attracted over 40 likes (at time of publication), some have questioned whether it is in breach of election guidance published by the SU’s Returning Officer.
The Election Guidance document tells candidates that “whilst it is reasonable to challenge the ideas or manifesto aims of your opponents, it is not acceptable to make personal attacks against other candidates.”
However, the document recognises that “Durham SU Officers and Students Trustees are not required to remain neutral during the election period and can support candidates if they wish.”
In a statement to Palatinate, McIntosh said: “Durham SU is about students’ rights – the right to advice, the right to be represented, the right to organise and be part of groups that do the things you love. Every single member of Durham SU, all 19,000 or so, have a right to vote however they like in elections, which includes voting to re-open nominations.
“Every member has the right to run in an election, and they also have a right to do so without fear of intimidation, harassment, and personal attacks on them or their supporters.
“As President of Durham SU I strive to uphold these rights. Every other member of Durham SU also has a responsibility to uphold these rights. We can complain about the culture of democracy here, but we are the custodians of that democracy, and to change it we have to lead by example.”
“We can complain about the culture of democracy here, but we are the custodians of that democracy”Kate McIntosh, Students’ Union President
Palatinate understands the Students’ Union held an emergency meeting with election candidates on Sunday afternoon to discuss the RON campaign.
The SU publicly acknowledged the campaign in an article on their website on Sunday evening, bearing the heading ‘To voters – a message from your Students’ Union’.
The article notes that “this campaign has arisen because a group of you are critical of some things at your Students’ Union and want to change them.
“Your SU is here to be directed and challenged by your discussions and ideas – the critical ones like this, as well as the friendly ones.”
The article also sets out the purpose of the RON option in the ballot. “Re-Open Nominations is a candidate in all elections so that if a voter believes there is no other candidate running who is willing or able to make Durham better for students, they can say so.
“This attempt merely reiterates the campaign’s point that these elections are undemocratic”‘Vote RON in the DSU Elections’ campaign page
The ‘Vote RON in the DSU Elections’ Facebook page criticised the article in a post, describing it as “an attempt to unfairly influence the election”, and alleging it to be a breach of SU standing orders.
The post concludes: “This attempt merely reiterates the campaign’s point that these elections are undemocratic, and we encourage you to continue […] voting RON.”
The SU’s Deputy Returning Officer, Gareth Hughes, said in a statement published on the SU website, “Durham SU is democratic by design.
“It is evident that Durham SU has a responsibility to recognise the strength of student concern, and to clarify what can and will be done to address it.”
“The Durham University Secretary has the power, on behalf of the University Council, to require a full, transparent review of these elections/ Durham SU has asked her to exercise that power, and she has agreed.
“As such, Durham SU will voluntarily undertake an independent external review of the 2020 Officer and Trustee election, overseen by the University Secretary”
The full statement can be read here.
Turnout is 98% higher than in last year’s vote
Whether inspired by the candidates’ manifestos or the RON campaign, students are already voting in record numbers. The turnout at the end of the first day of voting was 98% higher than at the same stage in last year’s vote.
The outcome of the elections will be announced in the Students’ Union building on Thursday evening.
Image: Andrew Bowden via Flickr