Before I get into this topic I want to make one thing clear – I am not arguing for or against the impeachment of UCDSU President Katie Ascough. Arguments for voting either way can be found elsewhere in this paper and from the respective campaigns of the Yes and No side. I’m a recent graduate of UCD so I won’t be casting a vote either way myself.
However, watching how the saga has unfolded so far, it’s become clear to me that the process the UCDSU has in place for the impeachment of their president needs to be examined because in a word, it’s terrible.
Let’s start with the mechanism to initiate impeachment proceedings. As it stands, this is no different to the process for holding a vote on changing the UCDSU Constitution or on setting Union policy; namely by the direction of the Union Council or by submitting a petition signed by at least 3.5% of the SU members. This is a bar that has been set far too low. Removing the UCDSU President from office is a serious and disruptive matter – overturning the result of an election, absorbing the focus of the SU for weeks and triggering a by-election. Getting 3.5% of SU members to sign a petition isn’t necessarily a difficult task, as evidenced by the instigators of this referendum doing so in a day, and on two separate occasions to boot. 3.5% is a small minority of any organization, and it’s perfectly feasible that a sufficiently committed group representing a niche perspective would be able to call a referendum grounded in reasoning that the great majority of students disagree with. For something as severe as impeachment, this is an unacceptable scenario.
While it is perhaps less likely that the Union Council would look to impeach an SU president, that the option is available to them on the same terms as setting union policy is utterly ridiculous. This allows for personal animosity or rivalries among a small number of people – that most students probably don’t even know – to completely disrupt the functioning of a union that all UCD students are compelled to pay into.
Once a referendum has been called and a vote held, we encounter another bar that has been set too low. The terms of an impeachment referendum are – again – identical to those for a policy referendum. A simple majority of votes, with a turnout of at least 10%, is sufficient for an impeachment to be successful. This means that it’s currently possible for just over 5% of UCD’s student body to remove the President of the UCDSU from office. Anybody familiar with the typical turnout one gets for a UCDSU vote knows that this is not even close to an implausible scenario.
Apathy is endemic to student’s unions, but this is no excuse for a substandard process. Impeachment is not something to treat lightly – it should be a difficult process. So what changes could be made? That is ultimately for the members of the UCDSU to decide, however I have a few suggestions.
Firstly, an impeachment referendum ought to be considered a unique class of vote, subject to additional conditions prior to consideration by the Returning Officer. Increasing the threshold for the number of signatures required for a petition of impeachment would be a positive move. This would make the process of initiating a vote more difficult and by making the distinction between impeachment and other kinds of votes the UCDSU Constitution would be acknowledging the additional seriousness the topic should be taken with.
Additional conditions, such as any impeachment petition requiring the support of some other elected officers of the UCDSU or class reps, would also be welcome. Each elected officer and class rep has a personal mandate from students as much as the president does, and are naturally more familiar with the workings of the UCDSU than a typical student. Requiring that some defined number of these individuals must support any call for impeachment would ensure that any vote held was well-grounded without introducing undemocratic elements to the process.
Finally, when a vote is ultimately held, the threshold for impeachment ought to be higher. This already the case for referendums to modify the constitution, which require a turnout of at least 12.5% of students rather than the 10% necessary for policy and impeachment votes. In addition to setting a higher threshold for turnout, requiring a supermajority of votes cast to be in favour of impeachment – say 60% – could also be considered. As stated previously impeachment should be considered a serious issue, and setting the bar a little higher than that of a more common policy referendum would ensure the topic is broached with the appropriate caution.
Nothing in this article should be taken as a criticism of the students who initiated the referendum to impeach Katie Ascough. They were not responsible for the mechanism that was available to them, and can’t be blamed for exercising their right to utilize it. However that doesn’t change the fact that members of the UCDSU really need to talk about their impeachment process. When the dust settles after the votes on the 25th and 26th of October this is a conversation that needs to happen, irrespective of the outcome, and the appropriate changes need to be made to fix what is clearly a deeply flawed process.
Conor Duffy – Opinion