Electoral Officer Karen Chau has held off on increasing the number of SRC councillors, even though under its own constitution the council is two members short.
Chau, who has only recently taken on the EO role, made her decision after suggestions the council has been undersized for at least five years.
Since 2013, there have been 33 positions up for grabs at the SRC’s annual elections. After Chau’s ruling, that number will stay unchanged for the 2018 election.
Yet during last night’s council meeting, it emerged there should in fact be 35 councillors.
The SRC constitution stipulates one councillor for every 1000 undergraduate students, or part thereof. There must also be an odd number of councillors, so if the total would otherwise be even, it is raised to the nearest odd figure.
Based on the University’s enrolment lists, SRC administration counts 33,447 current undergraduates. That means there should be 33 councillors for the first 33,000 students, plus one more to represent the 447 remainder. Since this method produces 34 councillors—an even number—the total must be raised to 35.
Under the constitution, it’s up to the electoral officer to calculate the correct number of councillors “each year prior to the Annual Elections in September”. After that, the number will “remain unchanged until the next Annual Elections”.
Despite this provision, Chau will not be increasing council to 35 ahead of the September elections. In a statement issued this afternoon, Chau explained that “the overwhelming basis of procedural fairness, especially noting that the nomination period has already opened, favours the holding over of any changes to electoral outcomes until the following year”.
Chau also urged council to explore the “substantive consequences of raising its own numbers to 35” before any action is taken.
At last night’s council meeting SRC President Imogen Grant suggested council’s underrepresentation was a longer-term issue. Grant pointed to the University’s annual reports which show total undergraduate enrolments for the previous year. Since 2013, these reports have recorded over 33,000 undergraduates. Based on these figures, there should have been 35 councillors in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Between 2007 and 2017, the SRC’s EO was Paulene Graham. For the five years in question, Graham’s official electoral reports do not reveal why she left council at 33 members: her 2017 report, for example, states simply “as per the rules the size of the student body, 33 SRC positions were defined.”
Nonetheless, Chau suspected that “fluctuations in data” meant it would be “a stretch to characterise the Council as having had a chronic underrepresentation problem since 2012”.
And when contacted by Honi, Graham confirmed this was the case. She explained that she did not rely on the annual report figures, which uses data captured at the semester one census date.
Rather, early in semester two, she projected what the size of the student body would be come the SRC election in September.
Graham adopted this practice because of the SRC Electoral Legal Arbiter’s interpretation of the words “student body”. That interpretation, according to Graham, held that “to be a member of the ‘student body’ for election purposes you must be currently enrolled in an undergraduate course, and therefore appear on the Student Roll the University supplies to the EO after census date.”
The start of semester two enrolment figures, Graham explained, include students who end up withdrawing ahead of the September elections. This means the number of eligible voters and therefore the size of the student body shrinks every year. So, before calling the election, Graham would “look at the numbers provided to me by the university at a stage after the initial enrolment date but before Census date when many students have already ‘withdrawn without penalty’”.
In some years, the numbers provided still showed enrolments just above 33,000, but Graham said she “knew from 17 years’ experience that it would drop more”. In most years, total enrolments did in fact did fall below 33,000 by election date.
On that basis, Graham held off an adding a further two councillors.
Whatever the historical situation, the issue of representation is now a live one for the SRC. At last night’s meeting, support for adding councillors was split.
Many councillors were reluctant to expand the 2019 council now that electoral nominations had opened. Some opposed expanding the SRC altogether: “I think the constitution should be amended,” Will Edwards of NLS said.
Nonetheless, left wing coalition Grassroots broadly supported a 35 member council. General Secretary Nina Dillon Britton was particularly enthusiastic: “Apart from constitutional interpretation issues, I can’t think of a reason not to do it.”
Chau, who sat in on the meeting, expressed hesitations in her report to council.
She expressed concern about difficulties interpreting the constitution, pointing in particular to the requirement that the number set in a given year “remain unchanged until the next Annual Elections”. One interpretation, Chau said, was that the number set last year cannot now be altered in a way that would affect next year’s council. On this reading, a decision to increase council’s size now could only affect the 2020 SRC.
At one point during the meeting, Grant seemed to be encouraging councillors to give instructions to Chau: “We consider the EO to take guidance from council,” she said. This may not be a power council actually has: the purpose of the EO, as Secretary to Council Julia Robins reminded Grant, is “to be separate to council”.
Ultimately, no motion was put, and Chau left the meeting after observing council’s discussion of the issue. Her statement today commits to “to making [an increase in Council’s numbers] one of the central recommendations in my [post-election] report.”
“I strongly urge the next Council and President to take action in resolving these issues well in advance of the appointment of the 2019 Electoral Officer.”
This article was updated on Monday August 6 to reflect comment received from former SRC Electoral Officer Paulene Graham.