Students renew push for electoral reforms

Resurrected motions may be eligible for January vote

After rejecting the agenda at the University of Toronto Students’ Union annual general meeting last month, a group of students are working to maintain momentum for reforms, preparing to reissue motions that could be voted upon at the union’s replacement meeting slated for late January 2013.

The anticipated amendments include the elimination of proxy votes on the union’s board and the introduction of online voting in general elections. Other proposed amendments could include reducing the number of signatures required to run for executive office, allowing the board of directors to amend the elections code and elect an internal chair, and introducing preferential voting to replace the first-past-the-post system currently in place.

Many of the changes failed to make the agenda at the previous general meeting, leading to its highly publicized rejection led by an invigorated opposition.

“[The UTSU] have a strange hidden process for how to submit agenda motions,” says Brett Chang, an opposition figure on campus. “And even if you do submit it, it is almost impossible to get that motion on the agenda because the board of directors is all on their slate.”

Although the opposition has frequently complained about a “hidden process,” the announcement of January’s anticipated meeting included detailed instructions on how to submit motions and amendments. Before receiving a hearing at a general meeting, amendments must first be approved by the Policy and Procedures Committee, and then by a supermajority of the union’s Board of Directors.

The board itself, however, has become the subject of several proposed changes. One such proposal would eliminate the use of proxy voting at board meetings.

“The Board of Directors exists to provide oversight on the operations of the union, and the practice of proxy voting changes the nature of our meetings,” said Cullen Brown, UTSU director for St. Michael’s College. “Proxy voting also encourages absenteeism. Multiple directors have not even attended one meeting.”

Benjamin Dionne, president of the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit), says the current proxy vote system used by the board means “some members currently control the agenda because they hold all these proxies.”

“We feel that if they are elected, they should attend the meetings and participate. The Lit does not accept proxy ballots for council meetings. We think it’s the role of people elected to participate,” said Dionne.

Current practices involving proxies also exist in a legal gray area. Some analysts contend that because the UTSU is a not-for-profit incorporated under the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act, it is illegal for directors to proxy their votes. The UTSU disagrees with this legal interpretation.

“As a director, I was pleased to learn that under the new Canada Not-for-Profit Act, proxying is in fact illegal. The UTSU’s bylaws will have to comply with the Act by 2014,” said Brown.

There have also been calls to change the selection process for the chair of future board meetings, from an external CFS employee to an internally selected director — a common practice at non-profit boards.

“The chair of the Board of Directors is required to balance perspectives from all the constituencies. It is important to have someone who can act diligently and remove themselves from the conversation,” said Corey Scott, vice-president, internal for the UTSU. “We want to ensure that each constituency can participate fully and without restriction, and an impartial and removed chair is able to facilitate this.”

Another bylaw amendment would decrease the number of nomination signatures required to run for executive positions at the union. The current number of signatures required is 250. This, say some students, is relatively high, compared to the 100 signatures needed to run as a federal Member of Parliament, and 50 needed to run for Toronto City Council.

The most prominent by-law amendment proposed is to implement online voting.

“If we were to actually get a motion on the agenda, it would be online voting. I have a laundry list of reforms. There are so many ways we can make the system more accountable, more transparent. And online voting would do all the above and its one that can be done tomorrow,” says Chang. “So we’re making it really easy for them because the system is already in place, everything exists. All they need to do is flip the switch.”

“We believe that if online voting is established it will make the UTSU more democratic. It is an easy thing to do and it is a logical thing to do,” said Dionne.

In executive elections, U of T’s voter turnout is less than 10 per cent far below other schools that have implemented online voting. At Queen’s, turnout last year was 33 per cent, and the school has used online voting for several years without incident.  McGill, which also has online voting, had 29.2 per cent turnout last year.

“In my experience with online voting at New College, we had a marked increase in voter turnout, and have had no techincal issues using the online system,” said Laurel Chester, UTSU director for New College.

Opponents of online voting point to Western’s election last year, during which a hacker broke into the system and changed ballot options, asking voters to pick Justin Bieber’s haircut, suggesting “Selena Gomez is wonderful” and renaming the process the “University erection.” The hacker was later arrested and criminally charged.

Undeterred, Chang has organized an online petition that students can sign if they support online voting.

“We already know that there are many issues in the electoral system, and that’s part of the reason why our petition has been so successful. We have almost 400 signatures in only a few days,” says Chang.

Some of the students who signed the petition provided reasons as to why they believe online voting needs to be implemented at U of T with their signatures.

Anisah Hassan said she supported the petition “to make voting more accessible: if U of T online servers are secure enough for our financial records, personal information and grades, why not voting?”

“Governing Council, Arts & Science Council, my college & my course union all use online voting for their elections. Why not the UTSU?” asked Katie Dunlop, former head of college at Trinity.

Another electoral reform floated in recent days includes the appointment of an independent chief returning officer, appointed through the university’s ombudsperson. Chester, a supporter of this proposal, says Carleton has made a similar change. “An independent CRO can only serve to decrease the perceived politicization of the current UTSU elections, as it removes to the highest degree possible the chance of personal bias.”

Scott declined to comment further on the specifics of the proposals, saying that “The union has made a commitment to having a third-party non-partisan legal electoral review. To ensure that electoral reform is being reviewed in good faith the union has not taken a position on any aspect of electoral reform until the review is received.”

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