The spring UTSU elections are fast approaching, and the rumours are flying around about who’s going to run, whether the current UTSU executives are going to seek re-election, and whether U of T students will see some fresh faces once campaigning begins after Reading Week.

While we all love the thrill of campaigns and the allure of the horse race, this all got me thinking: what kind of chance would challenger candidates have in a campaign against the group of student politicians I’ve seen dominate UTSU since I arrived at U of T in 2005?

The answer, I suspect, is that the odds heavily favour the incumbents. But by how much?

I decided to put some of my PoliSci training to good use, and do an analysis of exactly how democratic our student union really is.

The best measure of democracy is done annually by The Economist. Their methodology consists of answering a 60-point questionnaire with scores of 0, 0.5, or 1. They then take the score from each category (out of ten) and calculate the average across all categories, from the fairness of the electoral process to the openness of government. The “Democracy Score” I arrived at was pretty paltry. When you take the combined average in each category, UTSU scores only 6.54 out of 10. On the Democracy Scale, UTSU is in the very low end of the “Flawed Democracy” category.

That’s right—UTSU gets the same democracy score as Papua New Guinea and Colombia. They score less than Sri Lanka, and only 0.5 more than Guatemala. And they’re only one point more than Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

Here’s the breakdown. UTSU’s worst scores were in the “Electoral Process” and “Functioning of Government” categories. Their Elections and Referenda committee is strategically composed of UTSU executives who resign their positions shortly before the beginning of nomination period for the next elections, making the committee riddled with conflicts of interest.

And not once in my five years at U of T has the Committee hired a CRO that has been impartial—the CROs have favoured executives from the Canadian Federation of Students and those involved with the New Democratic Party. In fact, former CRO Eric Newstadt was a York Grad CFS exec while he was CRO, and Erin Jacobson was a volunteer for Olivia Chow’s campaign. The CRO recently hired for the upcoming UTSU elections, Dave Blocker, used to serve as Clubs Co-ordinator for the Ontario New Democratic Youth.

The CROs then hand out demerit points willy-nilly to opposition candidates for offences that would constitute Charter-protected free-speech in any other jurisdiction, and for supposed rules-violations of what the UTSU calls—no joke—non-arms-length parties.

Furthermore, the last elections saw significant irregularities that may have affected the result. A report issued by the Innis College Student Society exposed the absurd fact that according to 2009 CRO Lydia Treadwell’s report, more UTM students allegedly voted on the St. George campus than at UTM, and voted overwhelmingly for incumbent candidates—an allegation that, despite being hugely significant to the result went unanswered by the UTSU elections committee, whose former committee mates benefited from the irregularity.

In the “Functioning of Government” category, UTSU scored worst in areas of accountability and transparency. Whether it’s the scandal involving proxies at the 2009 AGM or the dispute over posting the minutes of their meetings online, UTSU appears to be making excuse after excuse as they go along.

UTSU executives operate with impunity. The Executive Review Committee—on which I sat as a member of the Board of Directors in 2006-07—was stacked with allies of the then-current executive, making objective review impossible. The masterful politicians that make up the current UTSU are particularly adept at creating a machine that will sustain them both while in government and when running for re-election, and this includes the Board of Directors. In my two years as a member of the board, it was rare for a motion to pass without near unanimous support.

Worst of all, for a supposedly democratic student union, UTSU elections have not seen a turnout higher than a percentage in the low teens in the past five years. That’s right. For all their democratic reform advocacy in provincial and federal elections, our student union is content to run a $2-million organisation representing over 45,000 students with only seven per cent (less in low-turnout years) of students casting their ballot. No wonder student confidence in UTSU is so low.

But the score isn’t all bad. UTSU’s saving grace is the fact that U of T ’s political landscape is vibrant, with an active and free press, and numerous clubs and college organisations that provide students with the ability to get involved, even if it’s not with UTSU. U of T’s “political culture” is so good that it received a score of 9.4 out of 10 in that category.

UTSU has a long way to go if it wants to raise its democracy score. The focus should be first and foremost on engaging more students in the process, and on increasing turnout. This means better publicity for the elections, and more polling stations across campus and in the colleges. The only question is whether UTSU, which benefits greatly from the status quo, has the will to reform itself.

What’s the score?

De Roche grades UTSU according to The Economist’s Democracy Index

+ Electoral Process and Pluralism

++ Functioning Government

+++ Political Participation

++++ Democratic Political Culture

+++++ Civil Liberties

====== The Final Tally