Featured image (left to right): Misbah Ashraf (Interim LUSU CEO), Peter Robertson (Acting NUS CEO and LUSU Returning Officer), and George Nuttall (former LUSU President).
Lancaster University Students' Union (LUSU) has refused to announce the results of this week's Presidential by-election after receiving 'a significant number of complaints/concerns'. A brief statement, posted on Friday night, said that the complaints would be investigated by the Returning Officer, Peter Robertson, and that it would 'take a significant amount of time.' Spineless reported earlier in the year that Mr Robertson has been accused of facilitating election rigging at another students' union.
The by-election, for which voting concluded at 4pm this afternoon, was called in unprecedented circumstances. It followed the summary dismissal of the sitting President, George Nuttall, who had already been elected unopposed in March 2020 to serve a second term. His was not the only early departure in the 2019/20 academic year, others leaving before their time included three more sabbatical officers, two lay trustees, two part-time officers, and LUSU's CEO.
The by-election to replace Mr Nuttall was fought between eight candidates in addition to a high-profile campaign calling for students to vote to Re-Open Nominations (RON). Despite this, the final turnout was just 8.32%, compared to the 18.15% turnout in March's elections for the entire sabbatical officer team.
LUSU has yet to identify the nature of the complaints, but their referral to the Returning Officer Mr Robertson gives some indication as to their severity. According to LUSU's democracy bye-law, the Deputy Returning Officer, who is a LUSU staff member, normally investigates and arbitrates on election complaints on their own. Complaints are only referred to the Returning Officer, who is external to the organisation, if 'serious action needs to be taken' or if they relate to the conduct of the Deputy themself. Serious action can include the disqualification of candidates or ordering the re-running of the election. An appeal against the Returning Officer's decision would be dealt with by staff in the University itself.
Many parallels can be drawn between the development and recent events at Durham Students' Union (DSU). In February, DSU cancelled the announcement of their sabbatical officer election results following election complaints. It later transpired that a complaint had been made against a member of the RON campaign in that election, and the decision was made to disqualify all RON votes. DSU revealed that 58% of students had voted RON as a first preference and none of these votes (or any other preferences made by these voters) were counted. An investigation by the Durham University subsequently found that while the disqualification of RON votes was 'unsastifactory', an election re-run wouldn't be necessary.
This process was upheld and overseen by Peter Robertson, who also acts as Returning Officer at DSU. If anything, it gives a very good indication of what may be happening now behind the scenes at LUSU.
In his day job, Mr Robertson is the Acting CEO of the National Union of Students (NUS). He was only appointed as LUSU Returning Officer in February this year, after Spineless reported that no Returning Officer had been duly appointed and the failure to do so was a violation of their own rules. In the same meeting, Trustees approved the Election Rules for the first time, replete with undemocratic amendments made with no scrutiny or debate.
Students' feeling of powerlessness to influence LUSU was emphasised by all sides during the by-election campaign. The most recent announcement, veiled in secrecy, and the fact students will have to wait 'a significant amount of time' before the results are revealed, are likely only to further erode trust in an institution which this year has truly hit rock bottom.