In February 2016, I happily wrote, “I’m glad to report that this year’s chief returning officer [Andrew Chorney] and his elections committee turned out to be the heroes the USC needed and Western students deserved.”
While dramatic politics dominated USC elections this year, the loss of faith in the elections committee is — in my opinion — the biggest tragedy.
Erin McCauley, the chief returning officer (CRO) this year is also the incoming secretary-treasurer, hired by a panel with the president-elect.
While I have no doubts that McCauley was the most qualified person for the job, the optics of her getting hired by the same people whom she oversaw during the election and then defended decisions involving them before the Appeals Board are just not good.
The CRO is supposed to be completely apolitical and neutral, and this appearance is necessary for the candidates and the public to have trust in them. Most organizations make an effort to not only avoid a conflict of interest, but also the perception of conflict of interest.
In fact, the USC’s own conflict of interest policy points this out, “A perceived conflict of interest: where an actual or potential conflict of interest may not exist, but an outside perspective into the surrounding circumstances leads or could lead to a perception that a conflict of interest exists.”
For councillors already agitated by the way the incoming executives ran their campaign and their subsequent interference in the SPO election, this has become another point of contention.
And because the CRO was unavailable to run the SPO election due to her conflict of interest as she applied for the executive position, the second-in-command — the deputy returning officer (DRO) — took charge. A most incredulous vote count ensued.
The DRO said in an email after the vote count mess up, “The SPO election ballots were not originally tabulated using the process outlined in bylaw 2, due to miscommunication between myself and the secretary-treasurer as well as general procedural error.”
That’s a lame excuse. There was no other way to “tabulate” ranked ballots. The USC has done it multiple times before. The ballots were outright counted wrong and it was an incredibly ridiculous blunder for anyone in charge of the elections to make.
And if there was confusion, bylaw 2 is clear on voting process, “Where the top candidate fails to achieve 50 per cent + 1, the second choice votes of the candidate finishing last in that round of ballot counting shall be reassigned accordingly.”
“This process is repeated until one candidate receives the majority of the highest preferences remaining on the ballots. If two (2) or more candidates are tied for the least popular position, those candidates shall be redistributed accordingly.”
There was no room for miscommunication.
The SPO election was saved from complete crisis by pure chance.
The ballots were set to be destroyed and if they had been picked up by the disposal company on Monday, the USC would have had to no clear way to elect its SPO. The outgoing council had been de-ratified and a revote would’ve been close to impossible.
But enough damage was done. It was unfair to the candidates to put them through the whole process again. And with everything that had already happened in this election, this was just the icing on the cake.
While election politics will go on — as is the nature of elected office — the USC needs to ensure its apolitical institutions stay, and are seen as, neutral.
Moving forward, the CRO shouldn’t be allowed to run for an executive position until their term runs out. And after this year’s SPO election fiasco, the elections committee needs new leadership for 2018.
While McCauley was DRO to the much revered Andrew Chorney and did a reasonable job in both roles, the practice of passing down the CRO role to the previous DRO shouldn’t become a tradition — especially when public trust runs low after a much-avoidable display of incompetence.