Union Council bans iPads for sabbatical elections

Voting opened today in elections for Union sabbatical and part-time officers. This year will be the first in which campaigners are forbidden from approaching students with electronic devices and encouraging them to vote on the spot. A motion to ban use of iPads and similar devices was passed by Union Council in February after it failed at the the General Assembly in December.

A representative from the Union told CG that a candidate who breaks this bylaw could receive any punishment from an oral warning to disqualification from their candidacy, depending on the severity of the violation.

Zak Mohran, who proposed the motion, was previously Sustainability, Engagement and Operations Officer from 2016–2017. His complaint with the use of iPads is not that their use damages democracy, but rather that this perception ‘shifts focus away from the hard work done by genuine candidates and their campaign teams.’

Mohran told CG that ‘the percentage contribution [of votes obtained by campaigning with electronic devices] is far smaller than the margin of victory for successful candidates in recent years.

Four of last year’s winners won with margins of over 1000 votes, and the BME officer position was uncontested. The Postgraduate Officer won a sizable majority of 365.55 (having been docked votes). However, the Women’s Officer race was extremely close and went to two run-offs, with Abeni Adeyemi eventually beating runner-up Waronda George by just 9 votes.

Last year, use of iPads was initially included in election expenses, campaigns charged for their use at £19 per week, and students were forbidden from using them to campaign for multiple candidates. But after multiple complaints that campaigners were doing exactly that, the Union Chair reversed the decision, and removed iPads from campaign expense calculations.

It is impossible to know exactly how use of electronic devices has affected election results. But even so, the practice frequently led to voter intimidation. One third-year student, approached by an iPad-wielding campaigner during last year’s election, said, ‘they were extremely persistent, and many people around me voted simply to get them to go away.’

The democratic legitimacy of the Union Chair, a student, acting as Returning Officer in student elections has been questioned, largely due to the uneven application of Union election rules over the years. Endorsing the recommendations of the democracy review, Union Council voted to introduce an External Returning Officer but this will not take effect until next academic year.

Two Sabbatical Officers and six candidates for other positions, including the current Union Chair, were found to have overspent the £100 maximum budget. A Union disciplinary panel docked them only 0.5% of their votes. All but one went on to win. Candidates who committed similar offences the previous year were disqualified from the race altogether.

If you are approached by someone with an electronic device or believe a candidate is breaking election bylaws, complaints can be submitted to su-union.chair@ucl.ac.uk.

This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Zak Mohran withdrew from the Activities Officer race.

Sasha Baker
Additional reporting: Peter FitzSimons
Featured image: UCL Digital Media, 2019 and Netspy under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.