One week after the unofficial results of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections were announced, some students are still questioning their validity — and the UTSU board has yet to approve the results. An announcement was made on the evening of Monday, March 18 that recounts were to be held for three positions on Tuesday, March 18. Another three recounts were held on Saturday, March 22.
The Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) has been hearing appeals for the past two weeks on several controversial rulings by Chief Returning Officer (CRO) Alex Flor, which some argue are in contravention of the UTSU’s bylaws.
Flor has refused to answer questions all week however Munib Sajjad, UTSU president, and chair of the Elections and Referenda Committee, is defending the elctions as fair — despite the fact that the ERC has yet to hear all appeals of the CRO’s decisions.
Students are questioning a number of electoral procedures, including: the use of ballots that included a withdrawn candidate’s name, the addition of an extra voting day at UTM, and the additional polling station at the Davis Building at UTM on that day.
An extra five hours of voting were allowed at UTM on Friday, March 14 because of early campus closure on Wednesday, March 12 due to weather conditions. Team Unite filed a complaint to the CRO about the additional day of voting, stating that they were not informed of an extra polling station added at the Davis Building on that day. U of T Voice appeared to have prior knowledge according to Facebook posts encouraging students to vote. Team Unite asked that all votes from the Davis Building be disposed of and not counted towards the results. The core of Team Unite’s argument hinges on their assertion that only the UTSU Board of Directors can authorize polling locations and dates, and that while the addition of the Davis station was unfair, the CRO did not have the authority to authorize it in the first place.
The CRO ruled that there had not been any violation of the Elections Procedure Code (EPC), stating, “The CRO acknowledges that the original polling stations for UTM did not include the Davis Building. However, the Davis Building had been ratified as a polling location by the ERC on January 8, 2014, and was not used on March 11–13, 2014 due to a prior booking.” She went on to say that U of T Voice were not informed of the polling station in advance, but were merely at UTM in advance of the polls opening and witnessed the polling station being set up at the Davis Building.
Aidan Fishman, an undergraduate representative on Governing Council, voiced his concerns over possible violations of the EPC. The EPC regulates behaviour during elections; complaints about violations of the code are adjudicated by the CRO.
In particular, Fishman emphasized Article VI, section P, “Benefits Acquired by Virtue of Office.” It forbids candidates from using resources that they would have obtained from past involvement in student government, such as the use of “office supplies, equipment, advertising space and staff.” Fishman is concerned that students may view a number of elements of U of T Voice’s campaign as derived from their involvement with the UTSU and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), namely the presence of CFS members campaigning for Voice, knowledge about the changed polling station locations at UTM, and the use of phone numbers that students told reporters they did not directly give out to the slate.
The CRO wrote on March 14 that the involvement of CFS members did not qualify as a breach of the prohibition on benefits of office. “The use of volunteers that they may have met through service of UTSU does not constitute the use of ‘staff’ as described in the [EPC],” she wrote. Neither, she adds, does Voice’s presence at the moved polling booth at UTM, of which she says the teams had no foreknowledge. Voice was seen campaigning at the Davis station all day, Unite did not campaign at all.
According to two scrutineers who requested anonymity, and were interviewed separately, Voice received more than 90 per cent of votes made at the Davis polling station.
The issue of the extra day of voting has raised concerns amongst student leaders. UTSU bylaws, which trump the EPC, state that only the Board of Directors can set election dates. The Board of Directors was not consulted by the CRO to set the additional five hours of voting at UTM. The issue has been raised by student governor Aidan Fishman, and Pierre Harfouche, who last week was unofficially elected vice-president, university affairs of the UTSU. “Ultimately, it is inequitable and illegal to change the campaign dates without consulting the entire Board of Directors of the UTSU,” said Harfouche. He added that because of this year’s introduction of online voting, students at UTM and commuter students were able to vote despite the weather.
In addition to questions about the legitimacy of extending voting hours, Fishman also questioned the handling of the ballot: even though former vice-president, external candidate Luis Moreno had dropped out of the race and endorsed Nicky Bhatty, his name still appeared on ballots, and several students reported that some poll supervisors did not indicate that he was no longer running. Considering the high number of spoiled ballots in that vice presidential race — there were approximately 400 more spoiled ballots than other executive races this year — some feel Moreno’s name on the ballot may have affected the result. Bhatty lost to Grayce Slobodian by a mere 15 votes.
“The amount of ballots that had his name on it is significant enough to affect the result — definitely more than 15, definitely more than 30,” said Ben Coleman, Arts & Science at large director of the UTSU and a scrutineer.
CRO Flor repeatedly declined to comment on questions about procedural matters. Munib Sajjad, current president of the UTSU and chair of the ERC, responded on her behalf saying that the decision to extend voting to UTM was made due to the inclement weather: “The ERC ruled that polls be extended by five hours to make up for that lost time. The online company was immediately contacted to change the hours of allowable offline voting, to maintain the integrity of the vote.” The ERC has yet to rule on whether the decision to extend voting was acceptable.
Sajjad justified the decision to add a polling station in Davis, citing that it had been booked the first three days of voting and, according to him. “There were complaints from students due to the lack of polling station at Davis,” he said.
Asked to explain why Voice knew about the station and Unite did not, Sajjad said: “No candidate was informed about the change in location. The poll was being set up in its location well before 9:30 [am], and candidates were on campus in the Davis building well before 9:30 [am]. Presumably, they saw the poll being set up and publicized it themselves.” When asked, Sajjad did not address whether it was contrary to UTSU bylaws to add a polling station and a day of voting without the board’s approval, although he did say that the ERC sometimes has to deal with events not spelled out in the EPC. Instead, Sajjad attacked those bringing forward the proposals — although as chair of the ERC he has yet to rule on their appeal: “Now that the results are out, some students are clearly attempting to change the outcome by saying that certain students should have had less access to polls. I think that’s dishonest.”
Harfouche has appealed the matter of the extra day of voting to the ERC, but has not received a response in eight days. In a copy of the appeal to the ERC Harfouche states, “This [bylaw] does not authorize the CRO to unilaterally change the pre-authorized dates for elections. The power to set election dates rests solely with the Board. The decision to make this change was therefore outside the authority of the CRO or the Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC).” In the appeal he goes on to say that the UTSU should either discount any votes gathered at UTM on March 14, or should annul the results of the election and order a new election.