Election season at U of T can be a dispiriting time of year. As soon as the posters go up and canvassing begins, the bitterness sets in. All candidates meetings turn into shouting matches; social media posts about demerits outnumber those about the issues that students face. Rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to talk about where we are headed as a university, we spend our time tallying mistakes and listening to feigned outrage. In 2011, the StudentsFirst slate even went so far as to withdraw from the race. No wonder most students disengage and voter turnout rates are low.
But the problems with the UTSU’s elections run deeper than the tone of the campaigns. Both university administrators and the St. George Round Table (SGRT) composed of the heads of college student councils and those of the engineering and physical education associations have expressed concerns about the UTSU’s election procedures. In particular, they are concerned that many students do not perceive returning officers, oversight committees, and appeals committees to be independent enough to ensure that the UTSU elections are fair.
UTSU president Shaun Shepherd and vice president-internal Corey Scott have both acknowledged the calls for electoral reform from Simcoe Hall and the SGRT. However, they have not yet announced any plans to reform or even review election procedures ahead of next semester’s UTSU elections. While it is understandable that they are reluctant to change long-established procedures, it seems short-sighted of the UTSU leadership not to want to bolster confidence in student union elections and by extension, their credibility as student representatives.
The UTSU should seek to review and, if necessary, reform its electoral procedures. However, it’s not sufficient for it to conduct an internal review, since that would do little to address concerns that election procedures are not transparent. At least part of the review and reform process should be open to the student body to ensure that the results inspire enough confidence to be taken seriously.
Recent experience shows that town hall meetings at U of T are often too fractious and unwieldy to yield productive results. Instead, the UTSU should strongly consider appointing an independent commission to review and recommend changes to election procedures, which it would present in a public report; vice-provost Jill Matus alludes to a similar idea in her 2011 letter to then-UTSU president Danielle Sandhu, and published two weeks ago on The Varsity’s website. There is no lack of qualified and interested candidates for the commission at U of T.
The UTSU could also take a page out of the Ontario government’s democratic reform playbook by appointing a “students’ panel” modeled on the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The panel, which would be composed of say 15 randomly selected students, would educate themselves on election procedures for student governments, deliberate on the values they want to inform the UTSU’s electoral system, and recommend changes based on those values.
Both the commission and students’ panel options would provide a good basis for meaningful electoral reform for the UTSU. President Shepherd and his colleagues owe it to students to strongly consider these options.
Patrick Baud’s column appears every two weeks.
Previous UTSU election reform coverage here