Returning Officer Penalises Left Action SRC Ticket by Deducting 10% of Votes Cast for the Campaign, Delaying Election Results

By Kat Wong and Henry Chen

On Thursday 22 October, the last day of the 2020 SRC Election, Left Action received an email from the independent Returning Officer appointed by Arc which stated that “all Left Action candidates will be penalised 10% of whatever primary votes they receive at the election.”

This penalty comes as a result of Left Action’s alleged missteps during Tharunka’s coverage of the SRC Presidential Debate between Left Action’s candidate, Shovan Bhattarai, and Together’s Tom Kennedy.

During this debate, Shovan and Tom were provided an opportunity to discuss their tickets and policies, outline their experience in student politics, and criticise their opponent’s campaign. However, Shovan and the Left Action ticket organised a viewing event for an audience and livestreamed the debate onto their own Facebook page.

By doing so, the Returning Officer, Philip Binns, asserted that Left Action infringed upon several election rules. Firstly, Binns argued that the ticket “dishonestly gained access to a second feed of the debate,” by requesting Zoom access to another account, in order to overcome what the ticket said were ‘technical difficulties’. This feed was then streamed live even though the Returning Officer had explicitly stipulated that the debate could only be streamed after review as per the election rules. All previous debates had been recorded, reviewed and posted shortly afterwards with no issues.

Secondly, as the debate was organised by Tharunka (an Arc publication), Binns stated that sharing a livestream constitutes “use of Arc resources for campaigning”, which puts Left Action in breach of section 11.24(a)(iv) of the Regulations of Arc @ UNSW Limited. However, it must be noted that section 11.24(a)(ix) states that “campaigning does not include postings, endorsements or engagements made via social media”, so it is debatable whether this constitutes a breach of Arc rules.

Finally, the Returning Officer affirms that the livestream allowed Left Action to bypass his advisory responsibilities over Tharunka’s election coverage, as outlined in section 11.3(b) of Arc’s Regulations. From here, he argues that Left Action “obstructed the Returning Officer in the performance of his duties” and that the appropriate penalty for these breaches is a 10% deduction of all votes cast to any Left Action candidate. All Left Action candidates (even those not involved in the presidential debate) will be penalised as the stream was published on the ticket’s page.

While Arc’s Regulations stipulate that Returning Officers are responsible for managing election infringements, this is usually achieved through suspensions, disqualifications of a candidate or disqualifications of an entire ticket. No Returning Officer in recent history has disqualified a candidate or directly deducted votes from a ticket, however there have been a number of cases of votes being discounted during sessions due to electoral violations

But the rationale behind this penalty, Binns claims, is based on past elections where previous Returning Officers have punished tickets by barring them from campaigning at a number of voting sessions. He asserts that Left Action should receive a penalty equivalent to one physical voting session ban. Given that candidates receive, on average 8.33% of their vote at each session, Binns rounded up the number as “approximately equating to” a 10% vote deduction.  

In response, Left Action have denied the allegations and rejected the 10% penalty, stating that the punishment is “arbitrary” and “highly disproportionate”. However, Binns’ determination has remained unchanged, forcing the ticket to appeal the decision to the Arc Board. The election result has been delayed due to a complication with the voting platform BigPulse and a candidate being made ineligible retrospectively.

In the meantime, Left Action has made a public statement about the situation, accusing Arc of “singling out the Left Action ticket and its supporters” and setting “a bad precedent for student democracy.” As such, the ticket created an online petition on Sunday night to rally against what they allege are “undemocratic electoral penalties.”

Since then, the petition has been signed by students across the country ranging from everyday students at UNSW to prominent figures within Australian student politics including former President of the USyd SRC, Liam Donohoe, Union Board Director at Adelaide University, Ana Obradovic, and NUS Victoria Education Officer, Beth Jackson. Even Left Action’s competitor, Rise UNSW, have signed in support.

Left Action’s statement also stirred outrage amongst the student community, with many calling the Returning Officer’s decision ‘undemocratic’ and ‘corrupt’.

“This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in student elections. There is no justification for this other than voter suppression,” stated one Facebook user.

Another student affirmed that the decision was, “Unbelievable, what on earth gives the RO authority to deduct votes from a ticket? It boggles the mind that they would even attempt this. Fight it all the way.”

Other students took issue with the logic behind the decision, commenting, “What a disgrace!! For livestreaming a DEBATE? Like, a literal platform for debating ideas??”

As of 5pm Wednesday 28 October, the appeals process is ongoing and the election results are still unknown.

Hersha Kadkol, Ticket Organiser for Left Action, has since stated that “Students should be able to take for granted the democratic conduct of elections for student unions.” Whether future elections will be afforded this right is up to the Arc Board of Directors.

Henry Chen is a former member of the UNSW Labor Club.