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In recent years, questions of bylaw enforcement have been at the forefront of the McMaster Students Union presidential elections. While most students may not concern themselves with the details of election rules, past years’ rulings show us that while infractions may seem minor, enough violations may cast the integrity of the election into question.
A look back at last year
In the 2018 election, the elections committee voted to disqualify two candidates, Rabeena Obaidullah and MSU president Ikram Farah.
According to the Jan. 25 elections committee meeting minutes, Obaidullah’s disqualification resulted from an accumulation of bylaw infractions, including campaigning in closed Facebook groups, using the McMaster logo in promotional material and misrepresenting expenses.
At the first elections committee meeting, Farah received fines for rule violations but was not disqualified. However, after another candidate brought forward additional complaints against her, the elections committee reconvened and voted to disqualify Farah due to the repeated nature of rule violations.
Both candidates made appeals to overturn their disqualifications. The MSU electoral appeal board determined that the violations did not harm the integrity of the election and therefore reinstated both candidates, allowing Farah to win the election.
Who counts as a campaign team member?
A candidate’s campaign team consists of MSU members that actively campaign on their behalf.
Campaign team members must be MSU members, which means that part time students, graduate students, potential students, and community members are not able to publicly voice support for presidential candidates.
According to the MSU elections department, rules regarding campaign team members exist to monitor campaign activity so that individuals and groups cannot use their monetary resources or positions of power to unduly influence the results of the election.
Responsibility for team members
The presidential election rules state that a candidate is responsible for the actions of their campaign team members, and can be fined, and in some cases disqualified, for actions taken by their team members.
A consistent question that has come up throughout elections committee meetings and appeals processes was whether it is the responsibility of the candidate or the elections department to ensure that both team members and the larger student population are abiding by the campaign rules.
According to the presidential election regulations, it is the candidate’s responsibility to ensure that their campaign team plays by the rules. In practice, however, this can be complicated.
Given that the elections committee can retroactively add people from outside the campaign team if they appeared to be publicly supporting the candidate, it is not always enough for the candidate to educate their campaign team about the election rules.
In the appeals process, a candidate petitioned against the fines that they had received, stating that it was unfair to be held responsible for violations outside of their control.
At the March 11 Student Representative Assembly meeting in 2018, former vice president (Administration) Shaarujaa Nadarajah stated that there could be more formalized rules to address how to respond when candidates rectify issues, especially when violations are committed by non campaign team members.
Additionally, the rulings of the elections committee regarding campaigning of non team members have differed year to year.
In 2016, a non-team member used the MSU logo to post on behalf of Mike Gill, one of the presidential candidates. The use of the MSU logo in campaign material is prohibited, as is campaign material released by a non team member. Since Gill took the steps to have the post taken down, the charges were dismissed.
However in 2018, individuals who were not on Farah’s campaign team posted endorsements on Snapchat and Instagram stories, both of which were not permitted for promotion. In contrast to the 2016 decision, the individuals were retroactively added to the campaign team and the candidate was subsequently fined.
The restriction of involvement of individuals from outside the campaign team was criticized during the appeals process during the 2018 election. A candidate expressed that public support from people from outside the campaign team meant that students who had never before been involved in elections were getting engaged.
The rules for this upcoming election seem to provide more leeway for involvement of non campaign members through the introduction of “campaign supporters” who show support for a candidate but do not belong to a campaign team.
However, campaign supporters still have to be MSU members. Additionally, the elections committee can determine that a campaign supporter is in fact a campaign representative.
A candidate is also subject to receiving a fine for a serious violation if their campaign supporter engages in harassment. Given these restrictions, it remains to be seen whether the addition of the “campaign supporter” category will increase opportunities for involvement in elections.
Grounds for Disqualification
Since 2016, the elections committee has voted to disqualify three different presidential candidates for violating the election rules. One disqualification occurred in 2016 and two occurred in 2018.
Violations ranged from campaigning in Facebook groups, to bad taste violations to misrepresentations of expenses.
The electoral appeal board voted to overturn all three disqualifications because the integrity of the election had not been sufficiently affected, thus reinstating the candidates.
The original decisions to disqualify candidates resulted from the accumulation of standard and severe violations that were deemed to violate the integrity of the election.
The integrity of an election is difficult to quantify, and has therefore been left up to the interpretation of the election committee. Since the elections committee is made up of SRA members, there is a high rate of turnover, meaning that the interpretation of rules can vary significantly from year to year.
This year, a new clause has been added to the election rules that removes some ambiguity from the disqualification process. Section 7.12.1. outlines conditions under which a candidate will be automatically disqualified.
These violations include deliberately sabotaging another candidate’s campaign, accumulating fines over half the spending limit, or accumulating five severe or 15 standard violations.
Had this rule been in place last year, two candidates had enough violations that they would have been automatically disqualified.
While the 2019 bylaws clear up some of the uncertainty that existed last year regarding what constituted cause for disqualification, larger issues surrounding the rules and the appeals process remain.
During the March 7 electoral appeal board meeting Farah criticized the validity and justice of the appeals process. She stated that she had not been given the opportunity to respond to appeals made against her. Additionally, she criticized the appeals process for being non transparent and for demonstrating conflicts of interest.
Additionally, during the 2018 appeals process, multiple candidates expressed concern that candidates could use the complaints process as a tactic to get their competition disqualified. Given that the 2019 rules provide grounds for automatic disqualification, this may remain a problem.
The presidential election bylaws are meant to ensure an equal playing field for all candidates, while also ensuring that rules are not so restrictive that they discourage participation. In the upcoming election, both candidates and the elections department will be held to a high level of scrutiny to ensure that rules are being publicized, interpreted, and enforced fairly.