A recent ANUSA report proposed shifting the annual ANUSA elections to an online platform and removing the course requirements for the Treasurer portfolio, as part of a move to make the elections more accessible to students. It also recommended expanding the Returning Officer’s (RO) powers in dispute resolution after controversies during last year’s elections.
The April 14 report was prepared by the Electoral Reform Working Group, consisting of General Secretary Sam Duncan, Disabilities Officer Tom Kesina, General Representatives Lauren Brain, Zac Rayson, Raqeeb Bhuyan, and Eben Leifer, as well as Elsie Adamo, Sukanya Ananth, and Karan Dhamija.
It also proposed a “dynamic quota system” that will be introduced to redistribute the excess votes of highly popular candidates “wherever fair to do so.”
Currently, on a ballot paper with many candidates, only a few reach quota due to the comparatively few preferences granted. By redistributing the excess of votes of candidates clearly in the lead to other candidates who have just missed out on quota, the elections are assumed to be made more competitive.
The new election process will take place online over four academic days, with a minimum of 75 hours of online polling, according to the report. There will only be two days of physical polling, in the Union Building, with ANUSA providing tablets or computers to do so.
Campaigners are still allowed to operate in Union Court to field their policies and expose them to student criticism, but will face expanded exclusions from the Union Court and University Avenue thoroughfares, as well as the Manning Clarke and Copland precincts.
If desired, passers-by can also “opt out” entirely, with campaigners prohibited from approaching students carrying a special lanyard or marker, provided by ANUSA. These reforms are hoped to make election time less disruptive for students.
Sam Duncan told Woroni that the changes were to “ensure this year’s election is safer, more inclusive and more accessible for all students.”
“Unfortunately, the current Regulations have proven inadequate in light of increasingly well-organised tickets and more aggressive campaign strategies, particularly in the online space. Following suggestions from last year’s Probity Officers and ACT Elections, the Working Group was formed to reshape the culture of ANUSA elections and the mechanisms by which they are run,” he said.
The Proposed Provider: Membership Solutions Ltd
The Working Group proposed that elections be run online through the services of Membership Solutions (MSL), a UK-based company that provides online administrative and electoral solutions to student clubs, societies, and unions. It has provided services to student unions in the University of Exeter, LSE, Oxford University, the UK National Union of Students, and many others.
The report hoped that the move would increase access to the elections, especially for students who could not be physically present in Union Court. Furthermore, it claimed that online voting “broadens the scope for voting and engagement”, citing PARSA’s increase in voter engagement since its turn to an online platform in 2013.
Online elections are also hoped to reduce expenditure, with the 2015 elections costing the Association $25,000.
However, uncertainties still remain – while MSL promises secure elections and is used by most university associations in the UK, it is not made clear how multiple votes from the same individual will be prevented.
A dedicated individual may easily change devices in order to vote more than once, sidestepping the usual countermeasures of IP checks and tracking cookies. Therefore, the only way to prevent a multiple voter would be to identify the person rather than their device. A unique form of identification – their student number, likely – must be provided, and linked to the vote. This reduces anonymity.
Yet, the report claims that MSL’s services feature “ballot anonymity” – it does not specify to whom the ballots will appear anonymous, or how anonymity can be preserved when coupling a student ID to a ballot is needed to prevent multiple voting.
Additionally, such a security measure would require MSL to have access to student IDs, possibly through a data sharing agreement between the ANU, ANUSA, and MSL. This was the case in the University of Reading in the UK.
MSL began providing online election services to the Reading University Students’ Union (RUSU) in 2010. A data sharing agreement established between the University of Reading and the RUSU allowed MSL to “obtain student-related data” such as ID, name, courses, email address, and enrolment status, although no sensitive information was to be given.
While data sharing and collection are not inherently problematic, the issue arises in whether or not students are informed of the entities with whom their university-related data is shared, especially if this third party is outside both ANU and Australia.
Additionally, the report proposes that the General Secretary produce an information booklet detailing the election process, contested positions, and student rights and obligations under ANUSA regulations.
The requirement for the Treasurer to have completed BUSN1001 and BUSN1002 is also to be removed to make the position more accessible. This is especially the case for potential candidates who have not done the coursework, but have professional experience nonetheless. Treasury work is thus to be supported by ANUSA’s Finance Officer, yearly auditors, and mandatory treasury training upon election.
Reforms to campaign expenditure have also been forwarded. Instead of offering a maximum of $50 for each candidate in a ticket, $50 per candidate for the ticket’s first 10 candidates will be provided, with $25 per candidate provided thereafter. The report hopes that this will level the playing field for students with limited spending capacity and reduce incentives for larger tickets to split into smaller tickets of 10 each.
Returning Officer as “Final Arbiter”
To combat regulation violations and harden the dispute process, the report attempted to clarify the positions of RO and Probity Officers. The RO, who is likely to be from ANUSA’s professional staff, is the only individual capable of taking enforcement action.
Critically, the RO’s powers over campaigning are extended to online conduct, and can ban online campaigning if violations occur, especially considering last year’s allegations of online harassment.
Moreover, the RO can remove material deemed to be violation regulations, can rule on issues in technical gray areas, indefinitely ban violating candidates, and disqualify candidates and move their preferences onto the candidate polling behind them. They are also not obliged to follow the recommendations of Probity Officers – this is important in cases where biases are suspected to affect Probity.
Ultimately, the report’s proposals are not set in stone – at present they are open to student feedback and may be subject to change in the future. It is likely to be discussed at an SRC meeting on Tuesday night.