The newly-elected University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual Ratification meeting is just over two weeks away, and the most dramatic months of student politics on the St. George campus are drawing to a close.
This brief period of composure presents student politicians and the union’s general membership with the opportunity to soberly reflect upon the UTSU’s increasingly tumultuous election campaigns.
At present, maintaining fair play and community standards during union elections is the job of the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) and the Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC). The CRO, who is hired from outside of the union’s membership by the ERC months prior to the election, is tasked with ensuring that the union’s election bylaws are enforced and with reporting about any partiality it observes throughout the process to the ERC.
Similarly, the ERC is meant to act in an unbiased manner to facilitate the logistics of the election. Importantly, the ERC reserves the right to hear appeals to the CRO’s rulings, and to modify them if it feels it appropriate.
The UTSU Appellate Board, established last fall, is a quasi-judicial body that oversees the elections process and may be appealed to as the final decision-maker for all elections complaints. This year, three Faculty of Law students and three undergraduate students sit on the Board, and all of its positions must be occupied by students who have not previously sought or held elected office in the UTSU.
Throughout the UTSU election campaign last month, amongst 32 individual rulings, 1515 demerit points were issued by the CRO to independents and candidates from all four slates. Of these 32 rulings, almost all were brought before the ERC, which recanted 1176 demerit points originally awarded by the CRO. The ERC awarded an additional 781 points to numerous candidates and slates.
Despite the existence of the Appellate Board as a final avenue for recourse, the fact that the ERC was able to so significantly alter the CRO’s decisions during this year’s election cycle provides cause to examine the nature of its role within the elections process.
For the sake of ensuring efficiency and impartiality — as well as avoiding further cynicism about the UTSU — there is a case to be made for restricting the activities of the ERC in future election cycles. The appropriate role of the ERC should be purely that of facilitator. As such, the power of this committee to modify the CRO’s rulings should be revoked.
The ERC’s current relationship to the CRO raises concerns about the efficiency of the appeals process. If candidates are awarded demerit points for a violation by the CRO, they have the opportunity to appeal to the ERC — which, this year, ruled more often than not in the candidates’ favour.
While the ERC dismissed demerit points pertaining to all affected slates during this election cycle, a few rulings are of particular interest. Fifteen points were retracted from Demand Better presidential candidate Mathias Memmel after evidence was presented that he did not in fact pre-campaign at an SGRT meeting prior to the election.
Seven points from all We the Students candidates were recanted when it was ruled that the use of a table in the Sidney Smith lobby was not in fact a privilege of office. Finally, eight points were removed from Victoria College director candidate Alex Bercik — formerly affiliated with Reboot — after it was found he did not engage in a misrepresentation of facts.
If not for the actions of the ERC, all of these candidates, and others, would have had a more difficult time throughout the campaign period, having to be more diligent due to the increased risk of reaching the threshold for disqualification. Furthermore, had the ERC not revoked so many demerit points from Demand Better — who secured the most seats of all slates in the election — all of its candidates would have been disqualified.
This is not to say that the rulings of the ERC were made without merit. But it is important to ask why the CRO and ERC were not on the same page more often. Indeed, for at least the past two UTSU elections, the ERC has found itself in increasing public contention with its own CRO. This is evident not only through the contrasting rulings between the officials, but when examining the language of its decisions.
In an ERC ruling on March 20, the committee stated that it was “alarmed” when the CRO neglected to translate a WeChat conversation in which a campaigner for the Demand Better slate attempted to offer UTM students petty cash for votes. In another ruling on March 10, the ERC also referenced the language of the CRO ruling as “disturbing” when the CRO referred to Demand Better as the “incumbent slate.”
The composition of the ERC also raises questions about the impartiality of the appeals process. These questions are important to consider on a principled basis — it is important to be confident in the impartiality of the elections process regardless of whether there is evidence of bias on the part of any given committee.
The ERC is staffed by three sitting members of the UTSU executive and three members of the Board of Directors. As in past years, this means that the current committee is composed of members who campaigned or worked with current candidates in the past.
For example, Ryan Gomes, Vice-President Professional Faculties and ERC Chair, openly campaigned on the Hello UofT slate alongside Mathias Memmel, who ran for and was elected UTSU President this year. Although there is no evidence of impartiality on Gomes’ part, the fact that this scenario is even possible under the current system might cause problems in the future.
It is even more troubling that Matthew Thomas, another member of the ERC, made politically charged comments to The Varsity last week, suggesting that he believed former presidential candidate Andre Fast to be “pro-CFS.” Thomas himself recognized the inappropriateness of these comments, telling The Varsity, “I’m on the Elections and Referenda Committee, I can’t say that,” and requested that his statements not be published.
The rulings of the ERC in this past election show no signs of partiality. However, when the ERC is staffed with elected members so closely connected to current candidates and union affairs, it undermines the appearance of legitimacy for the entire election process.
Given that the Appellate Board now exists and is explicitly mandated to keep political ties at arms’ length, it should assume the responsibilities of the ERC to hear complaints and overrule CRO rulings going forward. This will ensure the appearance of democratic, transparent, and fair elections.
Meanwhile, if the UTSU wants to maintain its democratic legitimacy, it should make it evident that candidates need not apply as much effort to winning appeals as they do votes, and that the election process is not swayed by current or former partisanship.
James Chapman is a second-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Urban Studies. He helped We the Students presidential candidate Andre Fast with campaigning in this year’s UTSU election cycle.
Disclosure: The Varsity’s Comment Editor, Teodora Pasca, is a member of the UTSU Appellate Board.