Is the CRO the election puppetmaster?

I woke up last Tuesday morning and, like 24 per cent of University of Calgary students, I cast my ballot in the Students’ Union election. The experience was swift and uncomplicated– it takes about two minutes from start to finish– but mine was marked with an unpleasant surprise. After logging in, I was immediately presented with two options for president– Hardave Birk and Dylan Jones– not the four I had expected. I thought I would find two joke candidates who had garnered so much publicity– Delilah Swift and Mister Tiddlywinks– on the ballot. They weren’t.

This was a departure from previous election processes. Though there were no joke candidates in last year’s election, Jeremy Zhao captured a whopping 16 per cent of the vote in 2009 when he ran as what he has since admitted was a joke candidate– three per cent more than the difference between Jones and Birk in this year’s presidential race. It is important to make the distinction, though, that when Zhao ran there was no separate designation for joke candidates as there is now.

I understand why joke candidates can’t win elections and obviously don’t believe that a troll puppet can hold office, but that’s not the issue. A lot of work was put into the joke campaigns. Mister Tiddlywinks was the undertaking of Gauntlet news editor Brent Constantin. Constantin made a platform, got signatures (admittedly, not as many as a real candidate) and made a campaign video and posters just like any real candidate. Constantin and Mister Tiddlywinks also made an appearance at the presidential forum– the most attended of this year’s fora and the only one with joke candidates.

Fellow joke candidate Delilah Swift (which isn’t her real name) was made aware that she would not be on the ballot, but that wasn’t the case for Constantin and Tiddlywinks. When questioned on Monday about the responsibility of the SU to make candidates and voters aware of the changes that had been made, Chief Returning Officer Sabrina Grover had the following to say: “According to the bylaws, joke candidates do not contest an election . . . as per the electoral process of a ballot designed to put someone in office, they do not put someone in office. Not contesting an election means that you can’t run on a ballot.”

She specifically referred to Section 17 of the Students’ Union election operations procedure, which states the following: “Joke Candidates are not considered to be contesting any race and may not be elected to any office as a consequence of any election.” It seems inherently problematic to interpret this to mean that joke candidates will not appear on the ballot– the language is not at all clear. The second part of the phrase states that joke candidates “may not be elected to any office as a consequence of any election.” Why is this qualification even necessary if the first part of the statement made clear that joke candidates would not be on the ballot?

Grover’s comments seem to contradict another policy found in the SU’s bylaws which states that “At end of voting the CRO shall tally the number of votes cast for each candidate (other than joke candidates) and declare the candidate who has received the most votes as provisionally elected to that position.”

Once again, why qualify that joke candidates’ votes will not be counted if they can never be cast in the first place?

Similar language is found in the reimbursement section of the election operations procedures, where it outlines that “Candidates must receive at least five per cent of the vote (5%) to have any expenses reimbursed or funded.”

The SU has since agreed to give Tiddlywinks his money despite the fact that he did not receive the aforementioned five per cent. However, since the requirement to garner five per cent of the vote has been removed, does this mean that anyone can submit a package for a joke candidate with the required 35 signatures and receive $100?

Grover’s statements also appear in stark contrast of those made by former CRO Alastair MacKinnon, who, in a Feb. 4, 2010 interview with the Gauntlet stated, “If a joke candidate wins, they will not take office, rather the purpose of the joke candidate is to make a point about something and raise awareness about student issues and the election itself.”

It doesn’t seem like a big leap to infer that MacKinnon is clearly stating the joke candidates will be on the ballot, but just can’t win.

No changes to the procedure or policy around joke candidates has been made since MacKinnon introduced joke candidates last year. He didn’t wish to comment on this year’s election.

Regardless, Tiddlywinks did an admirable job at drawing attention to the election. His name was mentioned in three separate headlines for stories about the election and at least one radio program. It’s a shame that he was left off the ballot with no notice and no apology, especially since the SU’s own bylaws and regulations are so unclear and problematic.

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