The Oxford University Conservative Association’s (OUCA) latest election results were challenged this week following allegations that the Returning Officer prevented members from voting.
Following his unsuccessful run for the OUCA presidency, Kofoworola Braithwaite, the Association’s current Communications Director, lodged a complaint of electoral malpractice against Matthew Benson, the Returning Officer.
Braithwaite alleged that Benson purposefully attempted to deprive him and his slate of votes and accused the RO of acting in favour of a rival slate led by the successful presidential candidate, Annabelle Fuller.
The complaint stated that Benson arbitrarily prevented OUCA members from voting in the election by turning them away from the polling station, the Golden Cross Pizza Express.
The Oxford Student has exclusively been shown evidence that alleges on the day of the election multiple students were stopped from voting by Benson because their names did not appear on an OUCA membership list.
However, given the record is very often incomplete, it has been standard practice for Returning Officers to allow students to vote if they are satisfied they are in fact members of the organisation.
Some members were refused their right to vote and others were initially stopped but then allowed to do so after protesting. These include former Oxford Union President Genevieve Athis, as well as a current officer for the society, Mo Iman.
One member claimed that she was stopped from voting because her name was misspelt on the record of members.
Braithwaite lost the OUCA presidential race by 16 votes, whilst around 20 voters were turned away on the polling day.
Braithwaite’s complaint alleged that 11 students out of 13 known to have been turned away would’ve voted for him and his slate.
Braithwaite told The Oxford Student: “It is undeniable that this election was not conducted in a proper and expected way. I believe the fact that at least 20 paying members of the Association, most of whom were intending to vote for me and members of my slate, were refused the right to vote on election day constitutes voter suppression and is enough grounds to have the election held again.
“I’m not sure why myself and my slate received unfair treatment. I had a goal to truly modernise OUCA, running on the most diverse slate the Association has ever seen with three out of four of my Senior Officer candidates being minorities, and indeed the majority of my slate comprising of candidates from minority backgrounds.”
If Braithwaite had won, he would have been the first black President in the Association’s century-long history.
Another part of the complaint alleges that Benson improperly scrutinised campaign material for Fuller’s slate, meaning OUCA members were included in said material without their consent, a violation of the Association’s electoral rules.
Furthermore, the complaint alleges that two members of Fuller’s slate, Ian Cheung and Mac Chatterji, were given time to adhere to OUCA rules regarding eligibility to run in elections (namely, being members of both the Conservative party and OUCA), by Benson extending the nomination deadline for them, against Association rules.
Finally, the complaint argues these actions were done deliberately to bolster the chances of Fuller’s slate to win the election and thus reflect misuse of office by Benson.
Braithwaite’s complaint was passed on to the society’s Disciplinary Committee, made up of the President, President-elect, and past Presidents of OUCA still studying at the university, among others.
However, when the Disciplinary Committee met on Thursday, Braithwaite’s complaint was not upheld, and Benson was cleared of all charges in a move that Braithwaite called “astonishing”.
OUCA President Marcus Walford told The Oxford Student: “We take all allegations of electoral malpractice extremely seriously. The Disciplinary Committee has met to consider a complaint made against the Returning Officer regarding the conduct of this term’s election and after thorough investigation resolved not to uphold the complaint, finding that the Returning Officer acted properly.
“I wish to stress that only members are allowed to vote in our elections, and on this occasion the Returning Officer turned away without distinction all those who were found not to be members. Anyone who is unsure whether they are a member may seek clarification from the Returning Officer at any time.”
In an OUCA termly meeting held on Monday this week, Braithwaite stood up in front of OUCA members and expressed his doubt in the RO’s neutrality in the election. He stated that he was “happy to see that the membership of this Association shared the same confidence” in his run for President that he did, but that it was “unfortunate” that the Association’s Returning Officer did not.
When asked why he thought such allegations had been made against him, Benson instead told The Oxford Student: “Some people were turned away from voting because they either did not present a valid University card or were found to be absent from the Membership Ledger. A valid University card and an entry in the Ledger are required to vote, according to the Rules of the Association, and this was applied to all voters consistently.
“I am pleased that the complaint against me was found to be baseless by a thorough investigative process.”
The controversy follows a tumultuous election season for OUCA, during which two members of Fuller’s slate switched to Braithwaite’s slate during one of the Association’s weekly Port and Policy events.
A member of the society was also ejected from an Oxford University Liberal Democrat-held Spirited Discussions event this term, as they conveyed the sentiment and words of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The member was on Fuller’s slate and dropped out of the election due to harsh criticism after the event.
It is not only Hilary that has proven to be a troubled term for OUCA. In Michaelmas term, plans to hold a ball were dropped due to poor ticket sales, leading to thousands of pounds in losses.
The Association has David Cameron as its Patron and Jacob Rees Mogg as its honorary President. Past Presidents of the Association have included prominent politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, William Hague and Edward Heath.