DCC accused of “active and wilful campaign to discourage student voters”

The Press Council has part-upheld a complaint from Dunedin City Council against this article. The PressCouncil decision is here http://www.presscouncil.org.nz/

Negotiations have broken down between OUSA and Dunedin City Council over plans to place a special voting booth on campus for this year’s local body election. After OUSA pulled out of an arrangement in response to a series of increasingly “ridiculous” demands made by DCC Officials, with one source within OUSA calling it “an active and wilful campaign to discourage students from voting”. 

One source close to the negotiations described the DCC representatives as “terrified of the idea of having [the booth]” while another described them as “dismissive” of the OUSA elections committee, saying “They don’t trust students. They’re worried that students are going to tear up the system. Together we have 20,000 potential votes. They’re worried about that.”

OUSA had wanted to place the booth in the Link, where early voting booths had been located during the 2014 general election, but DCC representatives insisted that it be placed in the OUSA reception area, which has far lower visibility and foot traffic. OUSA would also have been required to have an executive member supervising the station at all times. 

DCC also made it clear that they would consider pulling the booth if anyone from the university were to run. OUSA Campaigns Officer Sean Gamble says he found the provision “unfair”, and that when he had inquired whether her criteria applied only to students or extended to university staff, he had received no reply. 

A DCC representative told Critic they expected to attend meetings of the OUSA Campaigns committee overseeing student enrolment. OUSA denied her entry to the meeting, saying they felt her attendance was “inappropriate” as they are an independent organisation and should not be accountable to the council. 

One source expressed concerns about how close Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, who himself is up for re-election this year, was to the process. Laura Harris confirmed that at a private meeting both he and Jordan had both expressed OUSA refraining from endorsing a candidate as a factor in DCC providing the booth. Dave Cull recently found himself on the wrong side of OUSA after attempting to get the Student Union to organise and pay catering for a voter enrolment event where he would speak. Gamble says they pulled out over concerns that the event was shaping up too much as a tool for Cull to promote his own campaign. Cull is still intending to go ahead with a similar event at Otago Polytechnic.  

Since pulling out of discussions, OUSA has planned its own extensive initiative to promote voter enrolment and participation among students, with up to $10,000 invested in an awareness campaign. Over the coming weeks, teams will be visiting halls of residence to enrol new voters, with a goal of registering 5000 students, a number which Sean Gamble categorises as “ambitious but doable”. This initiative has also faced some resistance from the DCC, which denied a request for a bulk lot of 5000 blank enrolment forms, instead providing them only on a piecemeal basis. 

Because local body elections operate by postal vote, special voting is particularly important to students, who may be registered to vote at previous flats or their home electorate. A booth on campus would have been a simple way to counter this. However, special voting forms are also available via a simple phone request. OUSA believes that by encouraging students who do not receive their form to request one, and drawing attention to the postbox located outside Archway Shop in the Link, they can essentially replicate the benefits of a polling booth without DCC-imposed restrictions. 

This article first appeared in Issue 15, 2016.
Posted 10:58am Sunday 17th July 2016 by Joel MacManus.