The acting Chief Executive of the National Union of Students (NUS) is facing allegations of facilitating election rigging at Durham Students' Union (DSU). Peter Robertson is the Returning Officer for LUSU and DSU, responsible for ensuring the fair and democratic conduct of their elections.

Mr Robertson has been the acting Chief Executive of the NUS since 2018. Last year, he was accused of leading a 'coup' for trying to push through 'a complete shutdown of NUS rank and file democracy.' Mr Robertson was only appointed LUSU's Returning Officer in February, after Spineless exposed the fact that contrary to LUSU bye-laws, and possibly the Education Act 1994, the Trustee Board had never appointed a Returning Officer to oversee its elections.

There has been widespread outcry against DSU's handling of their sabbatical and trustee elections in February. In a decision upheld by Mr Robertson, DSU invalidated all votes for Re-Open Nominations (RON). The disqualification of RON was in response to a complaint which alleged that a student used an email list to encourage other students to vote for RON, during the campaign. DSU claims that this constitutes a breach of the election rules.

Although DSU has failed to provide a full breakdown of the results, The Palatinate, Durham's independent student newspaper, revealed this week that 58% of votes cast in the DSU election were for RON. This means that the vast majority of votes cast weren't counted. Even RON voters' second preference votes were ignored. The DSU elections are currently being investigated by Durham University, which has a statutory duty under the Education Act 1994 to ensure DSU elections are 'fairly and property conducted.'

Opposition to DSU's handling of the elections had come from all quarters. One Durham college's Student Representative Council (the equivalent of a JCR) has disaffiliated from DSU in protest, and two other colleges are considering doing the same. Durham University Labour Club released a statement (endorsed by Durham University Liberal Democrats) which described DSU's actions as 'blatant election rigging.' And DSU's Assembly was disrupted by protests earlier this month, resulting in the meeting being closed after just 15 minutes. The candidates who DSU say were elected released a joint statement saying that they're 'appalled' at DSU's actions, and requested an apology. However, they resisted calls for them to resign to trigger a fresh election, saying 'it was not clear resignation would lead to a more democratic process.'

It is the responsibility of LUSU's Trustee Board to annually appoint a Returning Officer, who has 'overall responsibility for overseeing the process of elections within the Students’ Union.' Is the individual who presided over DSU's 'election rigging' the best person to defend democracy in LUSU? Spineless encourages LUSU's trustees to re-think their decision...