Getting to know your EO

Connie Ye sat down with veteran SRC Electorial Officer Paulene Graham.

Electoral Officer Paulene Graham. Photo: Connie Ye
Electoral Officer Paulene Graham. Photo: Connie Ye

Normally student elections are about getting your senses and sometimes your body assaulted by campaigners swarming around Eastern Avenue. But behind the scenes a mad flurry of ballot papers, polling boxes and counting, always counting, returns every year to leave in its wake a few more freshly elected council representatives and Honi editors.

I spoke with Paulene to canvass not votes, but her thoughts on the process. A retired ex-university administration manager at UTS, she defected to our sandstone shores five years ago when the lure of enforcing democracy became too much.

So what is it exactly that the EO does?

“First it’s letting the people know the nominations are open, and the calling of nominations,” Paulene says. “And then it’s accepting the nominations and checking them all. That actually is a huge amount of work, because you’ve got to read every application and check they really are a student.”

Sounds comprehensive. “And then there’s designing and putting together the ballot paper, finding someone to print them, organising the ballot boxes, training students who want to work on the day,” she continues. “That’s all before you start to count.”

At this point I’m not sure I want to hear about the counting.

“A proportional representation system is quite a complex way of counting, in terms of preferences. It’s an incredibly fair way of doing it, but it’s also complex and you’ve got to pass through different preferences, which get different values as they pass through different people. For example, NUS (National Union of Students) is counted to the seventh decimal place, and you have to work out quotas which can change on each distribution.

“The President and Honi [elections] are reasonably easy but SRC and NUS can become quite complex. SRC takes weeks to count. So for example you can imagine if somebody votes for every individual on a 120 person ticket…”

I can imagine the thought of that would be enough to put people off. How then to engage with the disenfranchised student populations who have no interest in voting? Surely elections provide an exciting arena only for those actually getting elected?

“Well it’s a very important arena. University is not just about sitting in lectures and getting a piece of paper at the end. It’s about a whole lot of other experiences that you have, and [part of that is] learning how an election works. It’s also important for somebody who wasn’t brought up in Australia, because some may have never been in a system where there was a democratic election.

“For a lot of students it might be the first time they’ve voted, particularly with first year students who have never voted before because they’ve never been in any federal or state elections. They learn how to do it on a very complex ballot paper.”

In retrospect, does she see any trends in the number of people or how they vote each year?

“I have noticed on years when the university itself is reasonably calm, the students are happy with what the Vice Chancellor’s doing, there’s nothing much happening in politics, the vote’s often down. But in years where things are happening and students can see ‘hey here’s a chance for me to have a say’, the vote goes up and the adrenalin goes up with the candidates as well, and it makes for a more exciting election.”

It’s easy to see she enjoys being the arbiter of a process that churns out potential up-and-comers every year. Any downsides? She comments on the expense of running an election, but finds “it’s completely worth it, if you want an honest outcome”.

Here’s hoping that will be the case this time around, come Thursday evening.