Dawn Penney is the outgoing Chief Returning Officer, the SMU student in charge of maintaining the rules and integrity of the Saint Mary’s Student Association’s election. During her one year term she also spent a semester campaigning for the Halifax School Board, garnering 37.9% of the vote. The Journal invited her to share her thoughts on the voting process and her experiences.
Journal: You’ve been on both sides of voting. Here at SMU you were the referee of the election, and then immediately afterwards you went into campaign mode and ran for election of the school board. What was your perspective going from the rule keeper to the person worrying about the rules?
Penney: It was very interesting to be the big boss. and going from ‘what I say goes’ to ‘okay, I have to make sure I do everything they say and not get fined.’ The election, being CRO and running it and then actually participating in it during the municipal election reaffirmed my passion for politics and made me positive what I wanted to do with my life.
Journal: You got a sizable portion of the ballot in the municipal election.
Penney: Yeah, she got five thousand and I got three thousand. I was impressed with myself, I couldn’t believe it. I’m a nobody, so… (laughs)
Journal: Having done that, what do you think mobilized a voter? You say would-be SMUSA Presidents running around trying to get the vote out, but what do you think actually motivates them?
Penney: I think it’s their connection to the cause. If the candidate is talking about something that hits their heartstrings, then they’re going to get up and vote. They’re going to feel their voice is going into that process. As a candidate for any election in the future that I run, in that’s what I strive towards. I want that person who votes to trust that they will be represented.
Journal: What sort of advice would you have for the next rule keeper of the election?
Penney: I would tell them to follow the regulations, follow the policy and don’t give anyone any slack. If someone is not doing what they’re supposed to do, discipline them. Don’t be intimidated by people who want to bring their aspirations to the forefront, when they also need to maintain the integrity of the elections. That comes first.
Journal: Aspirations? Did you see a parallel between who volunteered for the candidates and who got hired?
Penney: Yes. I was upset that I was interviewed for a vice presidential position, but it was apparent after the hiring I didn’t have a chance to begin with. I didn’t have so much a concern with that but I had a concern with my time being wasted. I understand someone would hire someone close to them, so they know the working relationship works. But at the same time, you shouldn’t drag other people into that whole [hiring] process and waste their time if they have no chance whatsoever. That’s what my frustration is with that.
Journal: Are elections a popularity contest, and is that a bad thing?
Penney: Elections are a popularity contest, and it is a bad thing if people are voting for that reason alone, if they’re voting only because they know that person. But if they’re voting because they know that person and the issues, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s hard to decipher whether a voter is an informed voter or not. I’m just happy people get out to vote, whatever reason it may be that they’re voting at least they’re exercising their right to do so.
Journal: What traits are valuable for student governance?
Penney: The same traits that are valuable in any government, and I believe strongly in them. You need transparency, you need accountability and you need honesty, as a person. If you do not have any of those, or are lacking even one of those, then you don’t have a proper politician representing the populace.
Journal: Every few years a student fee is voted on by students. The Women’s Centre levy is up on the ballot soon. We talked earlier of popularity, what should the Women’s Centre do to make sure they have public support?
Penney: They should make sure the campus community aware that they’re there, that their services are valuable. I would probably be beneficial for them to take a survey, even, so that they have proof that what they are providing to this campus is a benefit.
Journal: As far as the ballot is concerned, how to you treat a referendum question as opposed to a candidate? How do you enforce the rules on a question?
Penney: That’s the CRO and DRO’s responsibility to promote. They are supposed to promote it in a non-partisan way. The question would look like ‘Do you support the continued levy of the Women’s Centre, yes or no? That would have to be promoted as well. What happened last year with the referendum questions is that they didn’t give them to me until a few days before the election, so it was impossible for me to advertise them. So, what happened at the polls I saw people saying ‘What’s this question? It’s the first I’ve head of this.’ That type of secrecy is not good when you’re supposed to have an informed voter. Hopefully this year there’s a lot more discussion around the referendum questions.
Journal: With your understanding of the rules, is the Women’s Centre allowed to campaign for the vote?
Penney: I’m not sure if it’s allowed, and I’m not even sure if it’s addressed in the policy. Which brings up another problem with the policy is the things that are left unaddressed, left up to the CRO. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might be if that CRO is hired to the benefit of a candidate.
Journal: Did that happen?
Penney: I hope not. I know I wasn’t, I had no idea who anyone was when I was hired. It was really the perfect position for me that fell into my lap. I didn’t even understand the scope of my power until after the elections, and after everything was said and done. I realized I was in charge of that, and I could have done way more.
Journal: How so?
Penney: I could have brought more awareness throughout campus, I didn’t know that I could talk to all the departments and get them to advertise the election for me. I think it was a lack of confidence that hindered me from making the election as big as I wanted it to be. Even though we doubled the voter turnout we could have quadrupled the voter turnout.
Journal: I imagine there is a learning curve. Here, take this document and learn it.
Penney: I had to rewrite it. After I rewrote it I got in trouble, because it was someone else’s responsibility but they had never met. There was all kind of administrative problems with the elections, so by that time I had gotten it done. They were like ‘you weren’t supposed to do that’. Well I just stayed up all night and did it, so here it is. Get it approved… and they did.
Journal: So your version was the one used.
Penney: Yes, it will probably be the one they use next year as well.
Journal: Any guidance or advice to anyone who is trying to get involved as a candidate?
Penney: My advice would be to ask the CRO or the DRO if you’re unsure of something. If something is unclear, they’re the authority on the matter. Part of the reason why I think my thoughts about governance is high for the CRO is because I had people looked at as higher than me, when really they weren’t. They were questioning my authority, and that belittled my opinions. I want candidates to know the CRO and DRO, they are the higher authority on [electoral] matters.