Much of the recent dialogue surrounding the 2018 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections has been dominated by a noticeable lack of political engagement. While these elections are typically accustomed to low voter turnout, this year has seen unusually low turnout from candidates too.
Thirty-six seats on the UTSU Board of Directors are up for grabs in the 2018 spring elections. Factoring in that many Division I and II categories have multiple seats available, the scarcity of candidates means that only seven of 36 seats are contested. No candidates have currently been publicized for the five Division II seats that are being elected internally — Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, Music, and Architecture and Visual Studies — and therefore these seats were excluded from the aforementioned figures.
Last year’s UTSU elections were comprised of four slates, in addition to independents. This year, Compass is the only slate that has put forth candidates for all executive positions — the number of Compass candidates nearly doubles the number of Boundless candidates and independents candidates combined.
Concerningly, three out of seven executive seats in this year’s elections are uncontested. Among all members of the Board of Directors, executives have the most extensive responsibilities. All of the unopposed executive candidates, if elected, will be required to work a minimum of 25 hours per week. Unlike UTSU directors, executives are also compensated with salaries.
Overall, not including the five Division II seats that will be elected internally, this year’s UTSU elections ultimately see 43 candidates competing for 36 positions — good odds, by all accounts, for those running in this horse race.
Such limited competition is discouragingly undemocratic. In a January editorial, we criticized the high number of resignations the UTSU has experienced this year. These same issues are transferable to the electoral context: the UTSU cannot legitimately claim to speak on behalf of the student body when there are substantial concerns with how those representatives come into office in the first place.
The student body’s disinterest or dissatisfaction with the UTSU is arguably evidenced by consistently poor voter turnout, which in spring elections has ranged from nine to 13 per cent over the past few years. The Varsity has also reported on poor attendance from directors at board meetings this year, revealing that as of March 16, a third of sitting directors had missed enough meetings to have effectively abandoned office per the UTSU’s bylaws.
These issues are connected: disengagement from constituents bleeds into the culture of the governing group. If students aren’t even engaged enough to vote in UTSU elections, they are hardly going to commit the time to run as representatives themselves.
Poorly contested elections might also call into question whether a candidate is truly the best for the role. Without competition, there is seemingly little onus on candidates to make a concerted effort to appeal to a healthy number of constituents when there are no opponents to keep them in check. Fortunately, many uncontested candidates in this election cycle have done their due diligence, but having opposition would certainly heighten accountability.
Lack of competition is not a problem isolated to the UTSU. Executive members of the Innis College Student Society (ICSS) — President, Executive Vice-President, Vice-President Finance, and Vice-President Internal — have run unopposed and won unopposed for at least the past three years in a row. The sole ICSS presidential candidate this year neglected to campaign substantially and was the only candidate who did not submit a platform statement for distribution to the college’s student body. The candidate was nevertheless elected with 84 ‘yes’ votes, a narrow margin over 60 ‘no’ votes and 17 spoiled ballots.
At the ICSS Annual General Meeting in 2016, a motion was passed to eliminate candidacy requirements for the Vice-President Finance and Executive Vice-President candidates, who were previously required to have one year of prior experience on council. The rationale behind this motion was to make elections more inclusive. Yet, lacking a substantial change in culture at the college, the ICSS executive teams in 2017 and 2018 proceeded to be elected unopposed.
And this year, all executive candidates in the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) spring elections were uncontested.
It is true that if students are unsatisfied with the options — or, rather, the lack thereof — they aren’t obliged to vote in favour of unopposed candidates. But it is relatively rare for unopposed candidates to be voted down via ‘no’ votes or to fail to reach the simple majority required for election into office. Running uncontested remains a reliable plan for election in most cases. In an internal election late last week, despite running unopposed, all three New College director candidates were elected to fill the three available seats.
Even if ‘no’ votes and abstentions do prevent unopposed candidates from being elected, positions left vacant after UTSU spring elections are usually remitted to by-election at the start of the fall semester. But there is no guarantee that by-elections will see more candidates running, and voter turnout at by-elections is typically even more abysmal than in the spring.
Numerous candidates in this year’s elections are running on platforms geared toward making the UTSU more accessible, transparent, and “human” to the rest of the student body. But without a sustainable plan for increased engagement, this problem will persist, and we may well find ourselves with even fewer options in 2019.