Screen Actors Guild election overturned

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Jan. 8, 2002 at 12:32 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- The Screen Actors Guild National Elections Committee on Monday ordered that the results of the union's recent election of top officers be set aside, because of irregularities in the way balloting was conducted.

The committee also ordered that the election of SAG's president, recording secretary and treasurer be rerun "promptly," with ballots mailed to SAG members on or before March 15, and a cut-off for receipt of ballots in Los Angeles no later than April 10. The ballots will be accompanied by a brief summary of the committee's decision, explaining to members why the rerun is being conducted.

The committee -- chaired by Fred Savage, best known as the star of the TV series, "The Wonder Years" -- said its decision is the last word in the matter.

"In accordance with the SAG Constitution," said the committee report "this Decision 'shall be conclusive and binding ... and 'shall be deemed to be the final decision of the Guild.'"

The decision followed an investigation by the committee -- which has the responsibility for supervising SAG elections -- into 20 formal challenges to the election results. The two major complaints alleged that last October's election was marred because voters in the union's New York branch had two more days than voters elsewhere to return their mail-in ballots, and because ballots used by voters in New York were different from those used everywhere else.

Two of the challenges were filed by candidates who won election to national office -- Elliot Gould (Recording Secretary) and Kent McCord (Treasurer).

Melissa Gilbert -- who has already been sworn in as the new SAG president -- won the disputed election, beating Valerie Harper in the mail-in balloting conducted in October 2001.

The National Elections Committee conducted hearings into the matter in December, and issued its finding Monday.

The committee concluded that, while none of the candidates "engaged in any conduct that violated either the SAG Constitution or any relevant Federal or State law," the election itself "was conducted in a manner which violated SAG's governance documents and/or Federal or State law."

According to the committee report, the problems were grounded in a series of failures and communication breakdowns on the part of SAG staff and Sequoia Voting Systems, a private firm that has administered the union's elections for years.

"These problems arose ... because SAG senior staff and Sequoia representatives treated the election in New York as an entirely different election than the one in the rest of the country," said the committee report, "even though the top three officers were to be elected to national office by the entire SAG membership."

According to the committee report, SAG officials and Sequoia executives noticed discrepancies between the New York ballots and other ballots as early as Oct. 16 -- but decided not to do anything about the matter because, historically, the New York elections had, for organizational reasons, been conducted differently than the national elections.

Until 1999, Sequoia administered the election in Los Angeles and the Honest Ballot Association administered the election in New York. The committee reported that Sequoia took over the administration of the New York balloting in 1999 because the branch had become dissatisfied with the performance of the Honest Ballot Association.

Although the SAG constitution grants to the National Elections Committee the authority "to supervise the preparation and mailing of the brochure and ballots, (and) the election procedures for the election of national officers," the committee said its investigation showed that SAG staff and Sequoia representatives established and supervised procedures and timetables for the 2001 election "entirely without any input from or supervision by this Committee."

One result was that voters in the New York branch had until Nov. 2 to return their mail-in ballots, while voters elsewhere were given only until Oct. 31 to return their ballots.

Harper and McCord testified at the committee's hearings that if they had known the campaign had two more days to run in New York, they would have used that time campaigning.

"Sequoia's records indisputably show that in the last two days of the election period in New York -- November 1 and 2 -- 1,233 ballots were received at the New York City Post Office," said the committee report. "That represents 19 percent of the 6300 total number of ballots returned in New York by November 2. Because Harper, Gould and McCord and perhaps their opponents did not know about the two extra days in New York, they were deprived of the right to compete for those votes and, equally important, of the opportunity to induce members who did not vote to cast ballots for them.

"Given the closeness of the vote for each of the top three officers," said the report, "we have decided that placing candidates and their member-supporters in this disadvantageous position may have affected the outcome of those elections."

The ballot discrepancy occurred when election administrators removed a line from the return envelope that had been used in the past for union members to place their signature, indicating to ballot counters that the ballots were valid. A Sequoia representative said he removed the signature line from the New York envelope in order to comply with federal labor law -- but the signature line was not removed from ballots outside of New York.

Placing the blame for the faulty election squarely on SAG senior staff and Sequoia representatives, the elections committee called the candidates "innocent victims" and found that "SAG staff arrogated unto itself and Sequoia representatives" the responsibility that the SAG constitution gives to the committee for supervising elections.

The committee said it was not trying to determine what the actual vote count would have been if uniform rules had been administered in the election.

"Much more is at stake here: we have a serious concern about the short-term and long-term integrity of SAG's election process," said the report. "With this in mind, the Committee unanimously has concluded that the manner in which the election of the three top officers was conducted falls far short of measuring up to the standards of a fair and level playing field which is the cornerstone of the democratic election process our members and candidates are entitled to receive."

The committee's order only affects the election results for the union's top three national officers. The election of 12 national vice presidents will stand because those elections were conducted at the branch level, not nationally.

The committee rejected several other challenges to the results of the election, finding that they have no merit.

Among those protests were allegations of numerous violations of the prohibition on financial contributions to candidates by a labor organization or an employer. There were also claims that SAG staff violated the union's policy of neutrality during the election process.

Another challenge asked the elections committee to consider the discovery of Anthrax in other mailings around the time that the SAG ballots were mailed, and whether that might result in a delay in the receipt and counting of mail-in ballots -- and whether the union should adopt a "reasonable rule" to cover such a case.

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