Without clear bylaws, the UASU can’t ensure just elections

The UASU can make sure that both candidates and election officers don't misinterpret or abuse bylaws by clarifying them.

Disclosure: I was a vice-president (academic) candidate in the 2024 UASU election and was disqualified from the race for exceeding my campaign budget. This article is not an attempt to retroactively change the outcome of the election. Rather it’s to highlight the need for great change to improve the process of our elections.

The 2024 University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) election showed how confusing bylaws can be, even for people with extensive knowledge of the UASU. In response, the UASU’s Bylaw Committee brought forward three election bylaw amendments to Students’ Council. However, these amendments weren’t sufficient to ensure that the Elections Office doesn’t repeat the mistakes made during the 2024 SU elections.

To ensure the inclusion of all students in student governance, the UASU needs to make bylaws clearer. Despite the changes made to bylaws, many are still unclear and leave room for confusion and misinterpretation. It’s not just candidates that can make a misstep because of flawed bylaws — it’s also the Chief Returning Officer (CRO), who uses bylaw to discipline candidates.

Most of the UASU’s election bylaws regulate the volunteers’ and candidates’ behaviour, but not the CRO’s powers. Without clear and careful regulation of the CRO’s actions, there can be unequal treatment of candidates – whether intentional or unintentional. The UASU needs to make multiple bylaws clearer to ensure that CROs can’t abuse their power. And if a CRO does make a mistake or abuse their power, clearer bylaws would give candidates a better chance when appealing rulings at the Discipline, Interpretation, and Enforcement (DIE) Board.

The wording of section three of bylaw 320.16 leaves what qualifies as proper notification of a bylaw violation unclear. This can cause problems for both candidates and the CRO. One of my DIE Board hearing results indicated that there are other ways a CRO can issue a “ruling” besides “the final written and polished description.” But what exactly qualifies as “proper notification” remains unclear for both the candidate and the CRO. The UASU needs to define what qualifies as a ruling and how a CRO can deliver it in the bylaws. Comprehensively notifying a candidate of a ruling is crucial for a candidate to be able to defend themselves against allegations. The CRO is responsible for making candidates aware of complaints. A failure to do so could result in unjust fines or disqualification of a candidate. But there’s little in the bylaws that ensures that the CRO does so properly.

Bylaw 320.16 gives the CRO two days to make a ruling after a complaint is filed, but there can still be confusion about what this entails. By clarifying what entails the two business days in this bylaw, the UASU can ensure fair and proper treatment of candidates. For example, does the countdown for two business days start the day the complaint is received or the day after? That clarification would ensure that the timeline is upheld and that the CRO doesn’t issue fines to candidates long after the complaint was filed. The CRO should have to act on complaints immediately or not at all. Otherwise the CRO essentially has the choice to act on complaints on a whim. This isn’t fair to candidates or students who are invested in the election and its outcomes.

Furthermore, in section 320.17.1, the CRO shall determine whether or not a bylaw contravention was intentional. But this requires the CRO to consistently communicate with candidates about alleged contraventions of bylaws. If the CRO fails to do that, it’s the candidate that will suffer the consequences, not the CRO. During the 2024 UASU election, it was apparent to me that some candidates were receiving that communication, while others weren’t. Without bylaws to ensure that the CRO is properly doing their job, it’s simply unfair to candidates.

The CRO also has access to each candidate’s budget throughout the campaign period. Thus, the CRO could decide to issue a lesser fine to keep a candidate under budget or do the opposite. Currently, bylaws don’t regulate how much a CRO can fine a candidate for each infraction. There should be clearer guides for the amount of fines a CRO can issue. The DIE Board should be directly involved with these decisions to ensure that the decision isn’t left up to a single person.

Budgets have a huge influence on a candidate’s campaign, maybe more than necessary. Bylaws 320.17.4 and 320.15.3 contradict themselves in exactly what exceeding the budget limit means for a candidate. 

In section 320.17.4, exceeding the spending limit is not mentioned under the circumstances that lead to disqualification. Yet in section 320.15.3, if a candidate exceeds their limit, it states they shall be disqualified. However, that gives the CRO the power to disqualify a candidate if they issue enough fines, even for minor infractions. Councillors questioned this at the UASU council meeting on April 2, but nothing was changed.

Overall, I think the excessive and largely unregulated powers of the CRO contributed to mistakes made in the election process. The UASU can ensure that the CRO treats candidates equally by making the bylaws clearer. And if candidates feel that the CRO hasn’t treated them fairly, clearer bylaws can give candidates a way to advocate for themselves. If the UASU doesn’t improve its bylaws, there will be more problems with future elections and possibly mistreatment of candidates. This wouldn’t only be to the detriment of candidates’ hard work, but also a just election.

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