For the second time in recent years, colleges, faculties, and student groups across campus are mobilizing to collect proxy votes for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM).
The efforts come amidst criticism of the manner in which signatures on proxy forms are verified, and the amount of personal information required on the form.
The proxy system allows students who cannot attend the meeting in person to give their vote to another student who can attend the AGM, with each voter permitted to carry up to 10 proxy votes.
In order for the proxies to be valid, students wishing to carry proxies must pick up a proxy form in person from the UTSU or University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) office. Each form must be embossed with an official seal, and be completed legibly by the member looking to proxy a vote.
“A Number war”
Eric Schwenger, newly-elected president of the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit) said that the proxy system is necessary in order to meet accessibility concerns and to provide students who cannot attend the meeting with the chance to vote.
However, Schwenger recognized that the system has its drawbacks. “The current system… becomes less of a matter of ensuring students can have their votes heard and more of a disproportionate proxy battle where the real issues are lost in a number war, which is a real shame,” he said.
Student leaders at Trinity College urged students to attend the AGM, and to proxy their votes to ensure their voices could still be heard if they could not attend. “We believe it is important for all students to be engaged in student government, particularly when there are decisions being made that have the potential to make a major impact on students,” said Tina Saban and Connor Anear, co-heads of Trinity College, in a joint statement.
Mathias Memmel, co-president of the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA) circulated a letter to all students of the Faculty of Music on October 14, informing them individually that the UTSU AGM was taking place and encouraging them to attend. “I also told them that a vote would take place that, should it pass, would see the college/faculty representation removed in favor of a structure that would manipulate representation on the UTSU and potentially misrepresent our constituency,” Memmel said.
“[The proxy system] has serious challenges in that it favours well-organized groups over actual student engagement,” said Ben Donato-Woodger, LGBTOUT public relations coordinator, adding: “We filled two proxy forms because we came on board rather last minute… We explained why it would give LGBTOUT members a better UTSU.”
“Neither the system nor the timeline” communicated by the UTSU
Memmel took multiple issues with the proxy system and said that he was unaware that the UTSU had released voter proxy forms, and that he found out two days before the deadline by chance via the UTSU website.
“Like the AGM itself, neither the system nor the timeline for proxy forms was communicated to us by the UTSU,” Memmel said.
Saban and Anear shared Memmel’s concerns about the period of time in which students were required to pick up the proxy form, collect signatures, and return the forum to the UTSU or UTMSU office. “Our greatest concern was that there was a fairly limited time to collect proxy votes,” Saban and Anear said, noting that the Thanksgiving break took up a portion of the proxy period.
“This limited time period, combined with the fact that students had to sign proxy forms in person and pick up and drop them off in person at the UTSU office, meant that students, particularly those who live off campus, had constraints placed on their ability to vote,” they added.
Yerusha Nuh, a member of the University Affairs Board, Governing Council, took issue with the delay in the dissemination of mass emails advertising the AGM. According to the UTSU’s bylaws, notice of the AGM must be provided to members 21 days in advance of the AGM via email. The Varsity obtained correspondence wherein Nuh expressed her concerns to Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president. Nuh also alleged that only a subset of the UTSU’s membership received emails about the AGM. In response, Bollo-Kamara stated that the UTSU does not have access to the membership list and needs to coordinate with the university in order to send out a mass email and said that she was unsure why only a subset of the membership received an email. The Varsity confirmed that emails pertaining to the AGM were sent out, but on different dates.
In an email to The Varsity, Bollo-Kamara said that the AGM was advertised in print media across campus, displayed on poster boards, social media, and on the UTSU website. “The UTSU put out the notice of the Annual General Meeting and the availability of proxy forms on September 30, the day after our Board of Directors chose a date for the AGM,” she said.
“Not openly accessible”
“The current proxy system [the UTSU] has is not openly accessible,” said Teresa Nguyen, president of the Engineering Society (EngSoc). Nguyen said that EngSoc proxies are available online for student convenience.
“If their elections needed to be online, why can’t their proxies? The Provost mentioned online is a key component of making things open and accessible,” she added.
Memmel echoed Nguyen’s concerns. “It should also be noted on the grounds of equity that providing proxy sheets via the UTMSU office — which I might add has a unique funding relationship with the UTSU — and not via other colleges [or] faculties is unfair… The existing voter proxy system and the requirement that a student register for the AGM, logistically prevents 50,000+ students from voting,” Memmel said.
Bollo-Kamara explained that the UTSU uses personalized forms signed out from their office to minimize the risk of fraudulent proxy collection, and to ensure that each student holding proxies is accountable for the signatures on it.
Nuh raised concerns with the amount of information that was specific to UTM. “How were UTM students supposed to know about the proxy procedures on the UTM campus if there was never any announcement made? Moreover, it is also unfair to St. George students as it is now open to interpretation whether UTM proxy forms were submitted according to the UTSU’s official procedures as there was no UTM-specific procedures in the first place,” Nuh said.
“Highly unnecessary” personal information required
According to Saban and Anear, several students also expressed concern that their phone number was required to proxy their vote. “This seems highly unnecessary and there was no explanation provided for it,” the Trinity heads said.
“The fact that students were required to list their library card number on the proxy form also created an unnecessary difficulty,” they added, remarking that the library card number is not explicitly listed on new TCards and that the proxy forms did not explain what the library card number was.
Bollo-Kamara stated that the information on the proxy forms is collected for security reasons, to verify identity and to minimize the risk of fraudulent proxy collection. “It is only used for the purpose of proxy verification, and then it is destroyed,” Bollo-Kamara said.
Proxy forms are verified by staff members who are bound to a privacy contract given to the UTSU by the university administration in order to access the UTSU’s membership list. Proxy forms are void if the proxy holder is not a member of the UTSU. Individual proxy votes are void if information is missing or incorrect, as stated on the proxy form.
Allegations of misinformation on both sides
Allegations have also surfaced that representatives of the UTSU have contacted clubs and course unions in a bid to increase the number of proxy votes in favour of the bylaw amendments. The Varsity received a report claiming that at least one course union on the St. George campus received messages saying that the UTSU will dissolve if the proposed bylaw amendments are not passed at this AGM.
Additionally, club executives at UTM have allegedly circulated information to their membership containing similar information.
Members of the UTSU executive, in turn, have alleged that people who do not have the full background have been disseminating false information, which they said causes confusion for students trying to understand the issues. Several information and consultation sessions among individual groups and divisions took place over the past week.
Woodsworth College, the UCLit, and LGBTOUT are among the colleges and student groups to have hosted such sessions. The UCLit and LGBTOUT invited members of the UTSU executive to speak at the open meetings.
Trinity College is set to hold its information session on Monday, October 27.
Memmel said that he corresponded with Bollo-Kamara regarding a meeting between the UTSU and the FMUA executive and claims that he never received a reply after suggesting that they meet in September.
Memmel criticized the early efforts to investigate alternative Board of Directors structures. “The Investigating Board Structures document produced by Nzube Ekpunobi [in] 2013 makes no recommendation of creating an identity-based structure in place of the college structure, yet this document is cited as being the rationale for the current proposal,” Memmel said.
The AGM is scheduled for 6 pm on October 29 in the OISE auditorium.