A motion to implement online voting for University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) elections was rejected after arousing lengthy debate at the UTMSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), with attendees questioning whether it was safe and accessible.
The motion was the only item submitted by a member outside of the executive and thus the last item on the agenda at the AGM, which was held on November 29.
Submitted by Ethan Bryant, the motion cited what Bryant saw as the “toxic nature” of past UTMSU elections, whose “competitive nature… [left] students open to being harassed by campaigners.”
The motion stated that “the openness and accessibility of elections should be a top priority for the UTMSU.”
Bryant called for the UTMSU to consult with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) — which already uses online voting — and implement the procedure in its upcoming April elections and every election thereafter.
“I put forward this motion because of accessibility,” Bryant said. “Online voting would increase voter turnout because instead of voting at polling stations on campus, students can vote anywhere on or off campus as long as they have a device and an internet connection.”
“Student elections for all positions, in the past, have been criticized for their toxic nature and have been negatively competitive despite the election officer’s best efforts,” Bryant continued. “Online voting would close the door on any harassment of voters or ballot system, which the current system does not do a good enough job of stopping.”
Bryant said that both Governing Council and UTSU elections already take place online, and that online voting is environmentally friendly since it doesn’t use a lot of paper.
UTMSU Vice-President Equity Leena Arbaji opposed the motion. “Easy and accessible are not the same thing. If we want to make voting more inclusive, then we should be working toward improving our current structure instead of starting from a new system.”
Arbaji added that online voting would bring up its own accessibility issues, as not all students have access to a reliable internet connection or devices.
Arbaji’s speech was followed by those of more than 15 students, some in favour of online voting, others against it.
Members in favour of online voting cited anxiety when confronted with in-person campaigners, the lack of access to voting by commuter students, and poor voter turnout as reasons to support online voting.
Members against the motion cited possible online hacking, the inability to verify voter identity online, the risk of online voting turning into a popularity contest, the effectiveness of in-person communication with voters, and the issue that not all students have access to laptops or smartphones due to financial implications as reasons to oppose online voting.
A 2011 study from Elections British Colubmia found that there have been “no documented cases of hacking of Internet voting systems in a public election” based off of studies of elections across Canada, Europe, the United States, Australia and India.
UTMSU President Felipe Nagata was also against online voting, saying that with in-person voting, candidates “have to convince [students] to get out of their way, go show their T-Card, go cast a ballot, and that’s a process.”
“That process comes with conversation, it comes with student engagement, it comes with a bigger and better thing that adds value to your vote as a student, as a citizen, as a student at UTM.”
“I don’t think this system is perfect. I think we have many flaws,” Nagata acknowledged. “I’m down to fix the system that we have in place. It’s been in place for a long time and I believe it’s working because students are voting.”
UTMSU elections have consistently had low voter turnout, with only 13 per cent of eligible students voting in the last election.
Ultimately, the question was called to end discussion and move directly to a vote. The motion was defeated and the meeting was adjourned immediately after.
Online voting has been a hotly debated topic among student unions at U of T. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union recently discussed the option before deciding to reject it, citing a risk of coercion and lack of research into the topic. The Canadian Federation of Students also rejected online voting at its National General Meeting in the summer for similar reasons.