unConference tackles flaws in the culture of democracy on campus

Reforming U of T’s voting systems considered a top priority
Students gather to discuss campus politics. CLARE SCOTT/THE VARSITY
Students gather to discuss campus politics. CLARE SCOTT/THE VARSITY

Voting systems, political participation, and measures of democracy were on the agenda at the first Campus Democracy unConference on Friday. The event was hosted by Hart House, in collaboration with Unlock Democracy Canada, an organization focused on democratic reform and proportional government in Canada.

Participants at the event, which brought together people from various backgrounds with an interest in improving the culture of democracy on campus, were invited to set the agenda based on relevant issues they thought were most important. Smaller groups were then formed to discuss each topic and propose solutions.

Participants voiced concerns about most students’ apathy towards the university’s elected bodies, which decide everything from event themes to how tuition is spent. These bodies include student unions, associations, and councils.

The event was organized by Dave Meslin, a Toronto-based artist and civic reformer. Meslin has helped found a number of community organizations in the past, including the Toronto Public Space Committee — a now-defunct group that worked to promote urban inclusivity and diversity in Toronto.

“Unless you think the campus is perfect as it is, you have no reason not to get involved,” Meslin said. “You can only gain.”

Reforming voting systems on campus was highlighted as a main concern. Most elected bodies at U of T use a system called First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Under this system, the candidate with the most votes wins. In a situation with two opposing platforms, but more than two candidates, FPTP makes it possible for a candidate whose platform is supported by less than 30 per cent of the vote to be elected. This happens when the opposing platform is split among several candidates.

Meslin claims this system is unrepresentative of voters. It leads to strategic voting and pushes certain voices out of the decision-making process. He attributes this problem to lack of awareness. If students had more information, Meslin believes, there would be a stronger movement for reform.

FPTP is also used at the provincial and federal levels of Canadian government. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom currently use a FPTP electoral system. Unlock Democracy Canada is one of many organizations that seek to change this. They hope that starting a conversation on campuses will build a generation that will challenge government to be more democratic.

Zack Medow, vice-president, external for the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council and volunteer for the organization, said this level of civic engagement is missing. “Although we are living in a democratic society — at least normatively — we don’t have a culture of democracy in Canada and I think we don’t have one at U of T,” he said.

Both Meslin and Medow recognize that the university’s elected bodies may not have an incentive to reform. “There is no power structure that wants to change,” said Medow.

Part of the problem is that there is no comprehensive database that shows which voting systems are used on campuses across Canada. Meslin has started a list of university bodies that use proportional representation on Unlock Democracy’s website. He hopes to use it as both an information and accountability tool.

Meslin remains optimistic that democracy at U of T will improve. Last year, both the Graduate Students’ Union and the Engineering Society passed motions to adopt proportional representation.

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