(Featured image: Peter Robertson, left foreground, at an NUS National President count. Stood on the right is Jules Mason, the former internal Chief Returning Officer for the NUS.)

Last week, the votes of at least 181 students were nullified after the disqualification of Re-Open Nominations (RON) in the by-election for next year's Lancaster University Students' Union (LUSU) President.

Outcry has followed the disqualification, which is seen by critics of the Students' Union as the latest in a long line of anti-democratic decisions. LUSU's elections team released a statement seeking to explain the decision on 16th June, while today Spineless had the opportunity to speak to National Union of Students (NUS) Charity Director and LUSU's Returning Officer, Peter Robertson, to find out more. Robertson has also spoken to The Tab Lancaster, and that interview can be read here.

Why was RON disqualified?

The RON votes were disqualified as the campaign was found to have broken specific rules as well as the spirit of the rules. There were several complaints which focused along the following themes: the anonymity of the campaign, which was seen as unfair on the candidates; the involvement of alumni in the RON campaign; the unauthorised editing of LA1TV's material, used to portray candidates as supporting RON; and the use of the Ghanaian dancing pallbearers meme in a negative way, which was considered at best an ‘unthinking microaggression’ and at worst ‘overtly racist’ (cw: the meme can be seen here).

Disqualification for these reasons will be contentious. RON supporters have argued that the use of LA1TV's footage was fair use under British copyright law. They have also argued that the use of the dancing pallbearers meme, which has been popularised during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been misinterpreted by election officials. The meme, which has been popularised in 2020, originated in a BBC News Africa piece from 2017. It has been described as a ‘danse macabre for the time of COVID’ and the pallbearers have acknowledged their internet fame. Last month, they shared their own COVID message of warning: ‘stay at home or dance with us.’

The allegation of racism levelled at the RON campaign must also be taken in the context of inaction by the Students' Union on the issue. When Grishma Bijukumar, Vice President (Welfare and Community), resigned in May, she said she had ‘been a victim of racism within the SU and instead of the SU reflecting, Officers are used as scapegoats and it seems like the issues which we have flagged up during the entire year are only heard once we resign.’ It is also relevant that LUSU's response to the Snowsports racism scandal in 2018 was to dismiss Chloe Long, their BAME Students' Officer who blew the whistle on the situation.

In response, the RON campaign said: ‘the accusation of racism is disingenuous at best and slander at worst... The RON campaign has never posted anything that is racist or discriminatory in any way...’ On the suggestion that the discriminatory post was the pallbearers meme, the campaign said: ‘The meme is clearly not racist in any way. It also takes some incredible doublethink for LUSU to believe it is in the slightest part racist when on Friday they also used a video featuring a person of colour in a meme in a similar way (the meme was nothing to do with the colour of their skin, just like the RON post).’

Was the disqualification of RON ultra vires?

Some have asked why all RON voters should be held to account for the actions of one campaign page, and questioned whether the rules even allow RON to be treated as a candidate and disqualified. Robertson explained to Spineless, ‘The NUS's view when returning an election, and we make our approach clear [to students' unions we work with], is that once there is a campaign that is attempting to influence how people are voting, RON has to be treated not as a function, but as a candidate.’ However, as there was no official, accredited RON campaign, and there couldn't be under the rules, the Students' Union were unable to approach anyone with concerns over rule-breaking.

The opposing view is that section 2.4 of the Democracy bye-law is explicit: ‘Re-open Nominations shall be an option in all elections.’ As RON is not a candidate, the election rules do not apply to it, and thus its disqualification was ultra vires - beyond the Students' Union's power.

The consensus appears to be that the rules the election was conducted under were flawed, and that LUSU should have more explicit controls on RON campaigns in its elections. A message on this theme was communicated by Robertson in his post-election report to LUSU. Regardless, it is the view of Spineless that this does not give anyone license to make up new rules and apply them retroactively.

Why wasn't the election re-run?

Asked why the election wasn't re-run, Robertson told Spineless: ‘If you believe the entire system has been compromised, you might re-run the election.’ He said that it sometimes happened if there was a significant error in how ballots were counted or if the software was flawed, but he couldn't recall an instance where it had happened in recent years.

Would RON have won if it hadn't been disqualified?

The failure by LUSU to release a countsheet with RON votes included has been seen by some students as a tacit admission that RON would otherwise have won. Robertson told Spineless that there is nothing else that could be released by LUSU: ‘There is no other voting statistic that hasn't been made public.’

Disqualifying candidates is a functionality of the UnionCloud electronic voting system, designed by an NUS joint venture called OneVoice Digital, and used by LUSU. The UnionCloud documentation specifies that there is an option to disqualify candidates: ‘after the candidate is removed their votes will be redistributed to the next preference in all cases.’ However, it also states that before disqualifying a candidate a copy of the pre-disqualification results should be made. This is probably to cover scenarios where the decision to disqualify is overturned. It is therefore likely that a pre-disqualification set of results does exist and can be published.

Why did the Durham investigation take a month but the Lancaster investigation less than 24 hours?

Following the disqualification, Spineless published eight questions for the Students' Union to answer. We queried why it was that the investigation of the election complaints took less than 24 hours, compared to the month required to investigate a comparable situation at Durham Students' Union (DSU) earlier in the year. Robertson explained that in Durham, the decision was actually taken to disqualify RON within about 24 working hours. The reason it took so long for this to be announced was because DSU uses a bespoke electronic voting system which didn't allow second preferences of RON voters to be redistributed, and staff spent the time attempting to find a workaround, to no avail.

The reason RON was disqualified at Durham was for a clear breach of the rules: JCR Presidents at Durham are University staff members and are not part of the Students' Union. Durham University staff members are expressly forbade from interfering in SU elections, under their Memorandum of Understanding, and several of the JCR Presidents had publicly endorsed RON. Exclusive mailing lists were also used, which the other campaigns did not have access to, giving them an unfair advantage.

Why is this decision the NUS's to make?

Robertson, as the NUS Charity Director, is head of the branch of NUS that looks after affiliated students' unions. He also leads a group of nine people, sometimes called the NUS Elections Support Service, which acts as the Returning Officer for 129 unions and has responsibility to oversee 900-1000 elections per year, though doesn't always need to intervene in them. He told Spineless that even when students' union bye-laws specify a person has to be Returning Officer, it is still effectively the National Union of Students as that has corporate personhood.

The NUS hasn't always overseen LUSU elections. LUSU first appointed an external Returning Officer in 2015. Before then, it was the responsibility of a directly-elected student Returning Officer who was assisted by a committee of Assistant Returning Officers from each college JCR. The first-ever Returning Officer for student elections at Lancaster University was Stanley Henig, the first Labour MP for Lancaster from 1966-70, although back then it was the Student Representative Council not the Students' Union. Robertson told Spineless that even before the elections support service was formalised, NUS probably filled a similar role for member students' unions even from as early as the 1960s, through its network of Regional Officers and Assistants.

Lancaster University has a legal duty to ensure LUSU elections are ‘fairly and properly conducted’. LUSU has written to the University confirming that they are willing to co-operate with any investigation, and Spineless understands that University officials will be closely scrutinising a report from the Returning Officer before deciding whether or not to investigate further. An investigation may also be triggered if a student appeals against the Returning Officer's ruling.

Meanwhile, the Students' Union has yet to acknowledge that their Women+ Officer-elect has resigned, and that County College JCR has threatened to disaffiliate in protest at their handling of the election. A petition has been set up on the LUSU website expressing disappointment and making several demands. If action is not taken to quell unrest, the rift between LUSU and the colleges will only grow, and trust in LUSU, which is likely at an all-time low, will be irretrievable.

LUSU has not replied to a request for comment.