The Independent Electoral Commission: independent no more?


By: Corbett Gildersleve, Alumnus

In April, the 2016–17 SFSS Board of Directors passed a new set of SFSS election policies. These include changes to how the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is assembled, which aspects of the election they handle, and how much autonomy they have.

Ironically, these new policies have compromised the very independence that the IEC requires to properly run the elections. Several of these changes, which I consider to be rooted in some confusion about what the hierarchy and structure of the SFSS should be, create conflicts of interest that undermine the IEC and make it difficult to run the elections properly.

The SFSS Council used to interview and recommend IEC candidates to the Board of Directors. Now, that role belongs to a new committee made up solely of the Administrative Supervisor and the Campaign, Research, and Policy Coordinator (CRPC), with the CEO having the option of sitting in.

This is a direct conflict of interest, because the SFSS hierarchy is as follows: the staff answer to the CEO; the CEO answers to the Board of Directors; and the Board of Directors is held accountable by undergraduate students, the owners of the SFSS.

Staff and administrators should not be the ones recommending the IEC, because the IEC, by running the election, can influence (intentionally or not) who becomes the staff’s new bosses. The SFSS has policy in place to minimize staff interference in elections and keep the IEC impartial, but with a staff and admin-only committee as gatekeeper, there will always be inherent staff interference and bias in the election.

The IEC has also been stripped of some of its duties and powers. For example, while the IEC used to be in charge of planning the candidate debates, that duty now falls to the SFSS Communications Office.

Furthermore, the IEC are not the only ones to have had responsibilities shifted from their hands to those of the SFSS. The new referendum policies have absorbed the promotion of referendum questions to the student body into the SFSS’ duties — a task that originally fell to whichever students proposed the questions in the first place. (A ridiculous idea, by the way: can you honestly see the SFSS effectively and neutrally campaigning for an issue that it doesn’t like, or that doesn’t benefit it?)

By taking on these aspects of the election and the referendum questions, the SFSS makes it impossible for the IEC to conduct the election independently, and takes agency away from students with whom it doesn’t agree. I see this change in procedure as having to do with giving the Board more power and the SFSS administration more control over dissenting students, especially considering the statements that unapproved campaign literature will be taken down.

The new rules also give the SFSS authority over the IEC in ways that are inappropriate, given what the power relationship between the two is supposed to be.

For instance, under IP-5 of the IEC Policies, the IEC’s Chief is required to send in a weekly report to the CEO on the status of the election/referendum. If the CEO thinks there’s a “risk to the organisation following from an inability to meet the minimum standards for hosting a Society election or referenda,” they can recommend the Board fire that IEC and appoint a new one.

This forces the IEC to be answerable to the CEO — essentially the opposite of “independent” from the SFSS.

You could argue that, with the rough elections of the last few years, this is an attempt to keep IECs more accountable. But the SFSS has been successfully running elections for 50 years; a couple of bad elections are not a good reason to entirely undermine the IEC’s powers. If you want to blame the IEC for the mistakes they’ve made, look higher on the power chain. The blame lies not with the IEC’s independence, but with the past failures to effectively train the SFSS Council in searching for an IEC.

The root cause of much of this is that the policy writer(s) have violated the separation of Operations and Governance. Elections should be purely in the Governance sphere of the SFSS, which is within the Board’s and members’ jurisdiction, not the CEO’s nor the staff’s.  The need for event planning, design, and emailing doesn’t make elections fall under the day-to-day Operations sphere.

The only role staff and admin should have is support, under the temporary direction of the IEC Chief. If some of the staff and/or the admin don’t like that, well, they’re replaceable. The most important thing should be keeping the IEC independent, and remembering whose powers are whose.