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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Pressure mounts on UTSU for electoral reform

Declaration from colleges, Simcoe Hall recommendations give new urgency to changes

By Zane Schwartz
Published: 4:10 am, 5 November 2012
Modified: 6 pm, 20 November 2012
Vol CXXXIII, No. 08 under
BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY
UPDATED

Pressure began mounting this week for electoral reform by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The St. George Roundtable has backed a “non-partisan declaration” calling for reforms that are, according to the three-page document, “both necessary and overdue.”

The declaration was well received by all the nine college leaders who sit on the SGRT. “All of the presidents have agreed that this is necessary,” said Paulina Bogdanova, co-head of college at Trinity. “They’re very basic issues, very basic suggestions,” she said.

Also this week, The Varsity obtained a letter from vice-provost, students Jill Matus to former UTSU president Danielle Sandhu detailing Simcoe Hall’s concerns with the union’s electoral policy in the wake of the spring 2011 elections, and admonishing Sandhu to implement many of the same reforms currently being pushed for by the SGRT declaration.

“I’m sure you know that the complaints, both formal and informal, raised annually about the fairness of UTSU’s election procedures are an on-going concern,” Matus wrote in the January 2012 letter, adding, “Once again, Danielle … it would be a fine outcome of your tenure as President if you were able to bolster confidence in your organization’s electoral system.”

Matus clarified that the concerns raised in the letter remained outstanding via email on Friday.

“We have been given assurances by UTSU that the organization would address the issues raised in the letter no later than the fall of 2012,” wrote Matus. “The president of UTSU repeated this assurance in a meeting several weeks ago.”

Meanwhile, the SGRT declaration’s widespread adoption could add to the urgency for reforms before this spring’s election, an effort that will likely come to a head when the UTSU convenes its annual general meeting on November 22.

The declaration was endorsed by both the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit) and the Trinity College Meeting last week. Other colleges and professional faculty associations will be considering the declaration in the weeks to come.

Benjamin Dionne, president of the UCLit, stresses the importance of “getting the discussion going” with the declaration.

“We decided to support it because it contains genuinely good measures that any democracy cannot, in good faith, turn down,” said Dionne.

Dionne admitted that the UCLit did have some reservations about the declaration, “mostly regarding the membership of the appeal committee.” He added that many of the aspects of the Declaration “are already part of the election code of the UCLit, and are therefore coherent with what we stand for.”

The university administration and the SGRT appear to have raised similar concerns about the optics and policy of UTSU-run elections.

The SGRT declaration calls on the union to address procedural issues by reforming the electoral code. Proposed changes include reviewing the appointment and powers of the chief returning officer, altering the composition and structure of various electoral appeals bodies, and removing financial barriers for candidates. The declaration also advocates a move to online voting and introducing a preferential balloting system.

Various propositions have attracted support in diverse quarters of the university.

Rishi Maharaj, president of the Engineering Society, is supportive of the call for a move to preferential voting. “Student organizations around the world have been leaders in the development and use of preferential voting and its benefits are well documented in academic research,” he said.

Both the declaration and Matus’ letter encourage the UTSU to move to online voting, with the declaration saying that such a move could improve participation rates among “commuting students, students with physical disabilities, and disengaged students.” Matus’ letter cited improved security and increased voter turnout as possible benefits that could arise from online voting.

UTSU remains non-committal 

Sam Greene, co-head of college at Trinity, says he sent the declaration to UTSU “a few weeks ago” but has yet to receive a “real affirmative response.”

“We decided to forge ahead to get stakeholder support — we’re looking to the UTSU to commit to these changes,” said Greene.

UTSU president Shaun Shepherd said he has read the declaration and passed it on to the Elections and Referenda Committee. “I’ve passed [it] on, I’ve shared my thoughts in honesty with those people,” said Shepherd.

But Corey Scott, vice-president internal and this year’s chair of the influential Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC), refused to comment on what aspects of the declaration he agreed with, or which of its proposals would receive serious consideration. Scott also refused to provide a timeline for when students could expect a formal response from the union.

“The members of the Elections and Referenda Committee will be more than happy to review and seriously consider the proposals,” Scott said. “It is always a good idea to review policies and procedures to ensure fairness, transparency and access.”

Asked to identify the area most in need of electoral reform, Scott pointed to Professional Experience Year (PEY) engineering students who are unable to vote in their PEY year, even though they return to full-time status the following year, saying the cause was something he would “personally prioritize.”

“Some of these other issues in here … I don’t think that anyone had conversations with Clara Ho [former chair of the ERC] about this stuff last year,” Scott said.

Bogdanova was not pleased with Scott’s response. “I feel like that’s a minor part of a broader issue,” she said. “He’s obviously just nit-picking.”

Concerns at Simcoe Hall

Matus’ letter is the clearest articulation to date of Simcoe Hall’s concerns about the optics of the UTSU’s annual elections. The document strongly recommends that the UTSU “undertake a serious review and overhaul of the process related to elections.”

“This complaint and assertions made about previous UTSU elections clearly indicate that there are students who perceive the electoral system at UTSU to be unfair,” Matus writes in the letter, although she clearly notes that the Office of Student Life found no direct evidence of unfair practices during the 2011 election.

No formal complaints were filed regarding the spring 2012 election that brought the current executive under Shepherd into office.

In the letter, Matus stressed the importance of both policy and perception when it comes to elections. “Electoral procedures must not only be fair, they must be perceived to be fair … in order to avoid perceptions that electoral processes are favouring a particular candidate or group of candidates,” she wrote, outlining six areas of concern to complainants.

Robert Boissoneault, who served as legal director for the 2011 Students’ First slate, submitted one of the 2011 complaints that eventually prompted the letter. (Since 2012, Boissoneault has been a member of The Varsity’s Board of Directors.)

“They [the administration] didn’t want to deal with politics, litigation. They were concerned, I think justifiably, with politics of defunding student unions,” said Boissoneault. He acknowledges that there was no “smoking gun” to prove outright bias in the 2011 election, but maintains that “there are enough little things wrong with this process to call into question its democratic legitimacy.”

The administration has, in the past, intervened in cases of gross corruption on the part of student unions. When The Varsity published transcripts of conversations between ASSU executives in 2007–2008 plotting to rig the election, there followed a high-profile intervention.

Matus explained the rule Friday. “If the Provost has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible and democratic fashion and following the terms of its constitution, the Policy provides procedures for the review of such matters and ultimately, the withholding of fees from the society,” she noted.

Previous calls for reform unheeded

“Typically, election reform is discussed after elections and not during the crucial periods where changes can be made,” explained Scott.

This year’s calls have come early, but Maharaj says he is skeptical that the effort will succeed, having seen annually “some attempt by those opposed to the CFS-affiliated incumbent to craft and pass policy and bylaw changes that would address some of the systemic criticisms of the UTSU.”

“I’ve yet to see a motion passed at any general or board meeting of the UTSU without the approval of the executive,” said Maharaj.

In August 2010, the Engineering Society submitted a detailed call for reform. According to Maharaj, then-UTSU president Adam Awad promised that the ERC would examine the proposal and respond. But nothing came of the plan. “From the minutes available to me, [the consultation] never occurred,” Maharaj claims.

The concerns expressed in Matus’s letter from January 2012 also appear to have gone unheeded thus far. A copy of the union’s electoral policy indicated that the document had not been updated since November 16, 2011.

  • Paul

    It’s the “University College Literary and Athletic Society” (UCLit). The Lit has been around a while guys..easy to get right.

  • Katie

    It’s not the Corey is just ‘nitpicking’ with regards to electoral reform, he is simply in denial or delusional about the poor democratic state of UTSU elections. This is not the kind of ‘leadership’ we as U of T students deserve representing us.

  • testy

    About time this document came out. Hopefully, we can reach a solution to the problems that dodge the UTSU elections. That being said, some of the colleges don’t lend the document credibility when during the year, they maintain an antagonistic relationship with the union. If they work towards a better, more productive relationship (even if the union is at fault sometimes), their critique (while imo, is totally sound) will be given more credence.

  • Name

    The fundamental problem is that the incumbent slate has a national lobby group backing them, and the opponents are usually just regular students. Hard to win an election when the other side buses in dozens of CFS hacks from York and Ryerson to help campaign.

  • Name

    The real problem is that the incumbent slate always has the support of a national lobby group, while the opposing side (when there is one) is usually made of just regular students. Hard to win an election when the CFS buses in dozens of volunteers from York and Ryerson to support the incumbents.

  • Matthew D.H. Gray

    For someone charged with UTSU’s internal policy, I really must question Corey’s comments here. Is he genuinely unaware of the concerns surrounding UTSU’s elections procedures, or is he trying to redirect students’ attention away from policies that help his friends get re-elected?

    The university administration and concerned students from all around campus are expressing their interest in making the operations of our student union more open, accessible, and fair. But the executive seems keen to put their fingers in their ears, and hope that nobody pays attention.

    Shame.

  • Hardy Weinberg

    Anyone else notice that theletter from Jill Mathus was Dated January 2011, but the complaints she recievedwere from March 2011. There is only one explanation for this and that is: Vice Provost Jill Mathus is a Time Lord and is in the procession of a TARDIS (if you don’t know what that is please look it up, cause it is AWESOME). Mathus (whom I will now on refer to in her true name, The Vice Provost), obviously went forward in time to get those complaints and went backwards and told Danielle
    about it. It is unknown if Danielle is The Vice Provost’s companion or what.
    This theory may require further investigation (*Hint Hint* next Varsity
    article).

    Next, on a serious note, suggestions made by SGRT, a group until recently was
    thought to be deceased, are valid. The current election system does have some
    serious accessibility issues for many students, and the vagueness for the rules
    does make it difficult for the CRO to call stuff. An example is, if a student
    takes a flyer to residence or a library that they received outside the
    prohibited zones, is that a violation of the rules? Are photos admissible
    evidence (as they can be fraudulent). Our beloved student PACs and the running
    parties often engage in this meaningless bickering over difficult to interpret
    rules. Next, as the UTSU’s keystone is accessibility to education, they should
    take a serious look at the accessibility issues surrounding the elections. I
    would include beyond financial, time table and social accessibility mentioned
    in the SGRT statement, it should also be mentioned that marginalized students
    (and students in general) last year also faced discrimination, with the hooting
    and hollering made by many of the audience, some of which were YES bigoted,
    created a barrier for students to ask questions.

    Although UTSU elections need
    reform, IMO it shouldn’t come from SGRT, because: regardless of what people may
    say about SGRT being the most “representative group” on campus they are not;
    and it raises questions as to whether or not there is an ulterior motive,
    because challengers are usually supported by SGRT. I would rather see a
    coalition of fair minded and balanced people (heck made up of SGRT, clubs,
    UTSU, the admin and anyone else who wants to be involved) who take into account
    feedback from students, via townhalls and so on. It is very sad, as these
    reforms are needed so badly that a more balanced group could not be formed. The
    recently SGRT may claim to be our savior, but i fear we may be putting ourselves
    on the fast-track to a zombie apocalypse.

    Finally, the majore question on
    everyone’s mind: Will these allow SGRT backed slate to win? My answer is no.
    Yes, i do dislike seeing the external CFS folks campaigning for the incumbents
    and yes I have gotten into arguments with UTSU regarding this (we have agreed
    to disagree). But there are two major differences between the CFS backed
    incumbents and the SGRT backed challengers:

    1) The incumbents actually go to non UTSU
    events. Recently i have been attending events, some for groups I have never
    attend before from both my college (TCM), UTSU (XOA), course unions (ESSU, APSS,
    ASCU) and other groups (The Varsity, LGBTOUT,
    EFUT, BSA, ASA, MSA, FtC and ect.). At almost every event I have seen UTSU
    people, and only at my college events do I see my college people. From Sept. incumbents
    are seen by a wider range of students and thus when it comes to the ballot box,
    a diverse and larger number of students comes to vote for them. While many
    students who vote for the challengers, simply do so to vote against the incumbents.

    2) The incumbents base their entire policy on
    something that is important to the overwhelming majority of students:
    Accessibility to Education. The obvious equity angle for minorities is widely
    known, but they also focus on a large segment of our community: those who lack financial
    security. Building a Bar means nothing to a student who has to choose between
    buying a drink to buying food or text books. Having extravagant galas at your
    college, automatically blocks commuter students who spend so much on monthly
    passes (and don’t have a place to stay if the party goes too long). We are all
    here primarily for our education, and those of us who are of privilege (including
    myself), don’t get when there is roadblocks to that.

    • Hardy Weinberg

      Although not clear, when i was referring to the students “spending so much on monthly passes” I was referring to those who spend most of what little money they have on monthly passes. There are students who buy monthly passes and can afford to go to gals and other highbrow shindigs.

    • Guest

      The letter is dated incorrectly. We confirmed with Jill Matus’ office that it was in fact sent January 2012.

      • Hardy Weinberg

        That still doesnt prove she is not a Time Lord with a TARDIS. Can you please confirm that as will with The Vice Provost? And if Danielle is her campanion?

        • Anon

          Hardy Weinberg stoned as fuck, name dropping the TARDIS like it’s 2005

  • Pierre

    Hey Varsity writers: You actually have a draft of the Engineering Society’s detailed call for reform: Here’s the updated copy (dated August 25th 2012).

    https://dl.dropbox.com/u/1836895/UTSU%20Report%20-%20Final.pdf

  • Molly

    If this letter is non-partisan does that mean no one involved in writing will be running for UTSU next year?

  • Emily

    I don’t know if this is in the reform proposal already, but I would really like to see the name of the party alongside the representatives’ names on the ballot. Last year I couldn’t keep everyone’s names straight and ended up voting for one person from the party I was trying to vote against. With so many diverse (and often long) names it’s really hard to keep track. I suppose you could write them down beforehand, but it doesn’t hurt to make the ballot as idiot-proof as possible.