All the reasons RON was disqualified – straight from Lancaster’s Returning Officer

We spoke to the man who made the call to disqualify RON

It’s been a turbulent week for Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) and those it represents. With the recent by-election being held to fill the place left behind by George Nuttall following his dismissal, the campaign to reopen nominations (RON) was dealt a blow, as any votes to RON were disqualified from the by-election.

JCRs and students have vocalised their outrage at the decision to disqualify votes to RON, and subsequently were infuriated by the Students’ Union’s update on the RON situation.

But one question remains: why were votes to RON actually disqualified?

LUSU’s update said: “Evidence was presented of postings and imagery that were identified as needing to be referred to other disciplinary processes to be investigated as they do not meet the equality, diversity and inclusion standards and behaviours which are set by the Students’ Union and the University. This post was at best an ill-conceived, unthinking microaggression and at worst overtly racist.”

Many students found this to be ambiguous, so The Tab Lancaster spoke to the external Returning Officer, Peter Robertson, to find out exactly why RON was disqualified. After all, if anyone knows then it must be him.

What was the main reason for disqualification?

The “Send a Message, Vote RON” Facebook page used many memes in the run up to the by-election

“There was discomfort around RON’s anonymity in Lancaster, though that’s possibly not worthy of disqualification. We can’t deal with assumptions, but the only thing we respond to are complaints. One complaint drew attention to posts on the ‘Send a Message, Vote RON’ Facebook page.

“One of the posts was an altered video from the LA1TV Q+A session. The RON campaign edited that hustings footage to make it appear that candidates felt a certain way. That video, we believe, has since been removed from the Facebook page.

“Another post was the candidates’ manifesto ‘fact check’ post. If an official candidate had posted that, we would’ve asked them to remove the post. Again, it isn’t worthy of disqualification, but we would’ve said it was against the spirit.

“However, we felt that one post, in the current climate, was at best ill-informed, and at worst was overtly racist. That post being the comparison of the Board of Trustees to the Ghanaian pallbearers. The post was used to demonise the Trustees, and was using black men to represent those Trustees. It was using negative imagery, with four black men, and if any candidate had posted that then they would have been disqualified.”

Why wasn’t the RON Campaign contacted?

“RON in some places is just a function on the ballot, but I’d agree that RON tends to be used as a protest vote. Once there is a campaign to influence the way people vote, then that campaign must be treated as a candidate – that’s the position of the NUS.

“That being said, nobody from the RON campaign was registered with the election, and therefore it was not official. And with no official campaigner, there’s nobody to refer who made the complaints to.

“You won’t be surprised to hear that in our recommendations we say that students should be asked to come forward to be the face of RON. I understand that Lancaster’s RON campaign had a spokesperson, but that doesn’t mean anything, as they haven’t signed anything.”

Is there an “unmodified” election count sheet?

“As the Students’ Union said on the website, the count of votes cannot take place until any investigation has been carried out. The votes were only counted after RON had been disqualified, and therefore there’s no way to tell how many votes RON received; with the system that Lancaster uses, any of RON’s votes that had a second preference would’ve automatically been transferred to that preference.

“The difference with Durham’s SU election was that Durham used a bespoke election system, and it did not allow for any votes to RON to be transferred to the second preference in the event of RON’s disqualification – that’s how Durham were able to give exact numbers for votes to RON.

“There is not a separate count sheet with votes to RON, as that would’ve been a separate election. RON was disqualified before the count even happened.”

But Lancaster University Students’ Union announced that RON had 181 non-transferable votes?

“I don’t know where they got that figure from. We simply do not know what’s happened to those figures, as RON was disqualified before the count.

“I’m not sure if it’s possible to be definitive. It’s a natural assumption that the votes that didn’t transfer were for RON, but as the disqualification had already taken place we don’t actually know why those votes didn’t transfer.”

Who made the decision to disqualify RON votes?

“There are nine members of the team who deal with these elections, and my name is signed off on most of them – meaning that in a year, there are around 1,000 SU elections with my name on. But I was directly involved in Lancaster’s by-election, yes.

“In this case, it was complex. Because of that, I got involved personally, and it was my decision. Normally, the Deputy Returning Officer makes the decision, and the Returning Officer is reserved to deal with any appeals to the decision – but as RON did not have anyone official to get involved and deal with an appeal, the NUS was asked to decide, rather than the Deputy Returning Officer.”