The SAG national election could be headed down the Bush-Gore trail.
With the discovery that some 24,000 ballots sent to New York Screen Actors Guild members could be invalid, leaders admitted that results in the hotly contested prexy race between frontrunners Valerie Harper and Melissa Gilbert may be challenged even though SAG officials have strongly denied any impropriety.
At issue is the fact that ballots sent to New York failed to include any signature line or instruction sign on the ballot envelope, unlike the other 74,000 envelopes, which say: “Voter: Print and sign your name on the back of this envelope.”
“I’m obviously very concerned,” said Eugene Boggs, one of four presidential candidates. “I don’t know why the safeguard of signing the ballot envelope was not included in New York but I want to wait and see what the union decides first before I comment further.”
SAG’s election committee in Los Angeles was planning to hold an emergency meeting as early as today. Speculation rose Tuesday that the lack of a signature instruction could open the election to a challenge.
But SAG’s administration downplayed the discrepancy in the New York ballots as an election-time tempest in a teapot.
“SAG national elections are conducted in accordance with the rules and regulations established by the Dept. of Labor,” it said in a statement issued Tuesday. “These rules do not require a singnature from the SAG member for a returned ballot to be valid.”
Spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven said that as long as the address label on the returned ballot is intact, the ballot is valid even if it is not signed. In response to concerns about the validity of ballots, she declared, “This is a non-issue.”
But if the ballots do become an issue, it will amount to another in a series of embarrassments for SAG. A Towers Perrin analysis last year described SAG as “organizational chaos”; CEO-designate John Cooke bailed out after 10 days due to boardroom factionalism.
SAG contended Tuesday that the process of checking the label on the ballot envelope provides sufficient protection. “Upon receipt of the ballot, an independent election service verifies that the ballot has been returned from an eligible voter based upon a pre-printed member identity label affixed to the return envelope,” it said.
Several members were also expressing concern over the difference in deadlines for the national election for president, secretary and treasurer. The New York deadline for receipt of ballots is 9 a.m. Friday while the cut-off for the remaining 76,000 SAG members was 6:30 a.m. today.
But Kichaven said in response, “The deadlines are in compliance with Labor Dept. rules.” Ballots for over 40 other offices elected on a regional basis also have differing deadlines; results are set to be announced Friday.
And Kichaven asserted that Sequoia Pacific — the firm which conducts SAG elections — made the decision to send out New York ballots without signature lines and instructions rather than SAG staff. And she added that signatures have been checked for validity on only about half a dozen ballots in recent elections.
But Kichaven had no answer to questions as to why SAG staff was not consulted by Sequoia Pacific on the change in procedures; why members were not officially informed prior of the change; and how SAG can be certain of the validity of ballots sent to members through agent and manager offices.
New SAG chief Robert Pisano, national director of guild governance Clinta Dayton and Sequoia Pacific were not available for comment Tuesday night.
Pisano tapped Dayton, who is the longtime staffer in charge of election administration, for the post last month. The move put her in the SAG hot seat as official liaison between staff and the officers and committees repping the members.
Pisano warned guild staff in a memo last month to avoid any involvement in the elections, saying, “Our position is neutral, and our responsibility is to serve our members, regardless of who holds political office.”
That memo came amid this season’s spirited campaign and a year after accusations of electioneering by staff surfaced at SAG’s New York branch. That dispute featured allegations of misconduct in last fall’s election by SAG national associate exec director John McGuire and New York exec director John Sucke, ballot stuffing and misuse of SAG funds.
A guild election committee dismissed the allegations in February; the Natl. Labor Relations Board subsequently turned down the complaint.