The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) voting period is set to take place from Wednesday, March 17 to Sunday, March 21, with nine candidates vying for six executive positions. 

Four of these positions are uncontested, which mirrors previous UTSU elections in recent years that have also been marked by a lack of participation. For example, in 2019, multiple executive elections were initially vacant and required by-elections. 

This year, the UTSU has made several changes to accommodate for the pandemic, including decreasing the number of signatures required and changing the reimbursement guidelines. 

Prior to the voting period, the UTSU will be hosting an all-candidates forum on March 16, and The Varsity will be hosting its own on March 17.

Lack of contestation, potential vacancy 

The four positions that have only one candidate running are president, vice-president operations, vice-president public & university affairs, and vice-president equity. Elections for vice-president student life and vice-president professional faculties are contested. 

The uncontested candidate for vice-president public & university affairs, Micah Kalisch, previously informed The Varsity that she intended to drop out of the race in explaining why she would not be able to accept The Varsity’s invitation to its UTSU elections forum next week. 

After The Varsity published a breaking story on this intention, Kalisch indicated that the reporting was inaccurate — claiming that her notice was private and not meant to be taken as official comment. 

As of publication time, Kalisch has not responded to The Varsity’s request for further comment to clarify how the reporting was inaccurate or her precise plans and whether she will drop out or stay in the race. 

If Kalisch drops out, a by-election to fill the role, with a term that begins on May 1, could be required. However, according to UTSU President Muntaka Ahmed, Kalisch has not yet submitted any formal notice to leave the race, and therefore, she officially remains a candidate.

President on pre-election efforts to increase participation

In light of the lack of contestation and a potential vacancy, The Varsity reached out to the UTSU for comment on low participation. Ahmed highlighted the UTSU’s pre-election efforts to increase participation amid the pandemic. These included extending the nomination period and updating the elections code, which reduced the number of nomination signatures required and lowered the executive spending limit on elections to $500 but allowed for a full reimbursement. 

The UTSU discussed the challenges surrounding participation and approved the above solutions at its February Board of Directors meeting. The UTSU also live-streamed information sessions about the elections on Facebook, which were later posted for students who missed it. 

Ahmed noted that pandemic-related circumstances, including the lack of in-person nomination and campaigning processes, have made elections particularly difficult. The union has “tried to make the process as burden-free on both the candidate’s and our administrative end as possible,” she wrote. 

“I think that this is more than just a UTSU problem. I think it’s campus wide. And this year it’s exacerbated by the fact that students [are] generally incredibly burnt out and not seeking out positions of leadership as much as they used to,” Ahmed wrote.

Vice-president operations on participation

Current UTSU Vice-President Operations Dermot O’Halloran also weighed in on the issue.

O’Halloran wrote to The Varsity that the UTSU executive team has been trying extremely hard this year to increase the number of candidates for executive positions. “This has been a disappointing elections season for student unions across the country, and we’re predictably disappointed that the number of candidates is low for ours,” wrote O’Halloran. 

“Our no-slates system causes confusion each year, and it seems this is still the case,” wrote O’Halloran. “So we’re using this as an opportunity to immediately work on improvement strategies for use by the incoming team during our fall by-elections.” 

The UTSU used to allow slates to run in executive elections, but the practice was banned in 2018 due to concerns that it had made running more difficult for independents. Slates are groups of candidates who run under similar platforms for the various executive positions. O’Halloran noted that he believes the ban on slates makes elections more fair. 

He wrote that feedback from students on why they are hesitant to participate in elections “has largely been that people are burned out, and are scared after seeing what’s happened at other campuses.” He listed the Carleton University Students’ Association and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, which have seen election controversies in the past. 

O’Halloran did note, however, some improvements in election participation this year, including an increase in the number of directors running, as well as increased interest from faculty unions in director seats. 

“The [vice-president public & university affairs] position is still one year old which may provide some context as to why there is now an unconfirmed (because Micah is still in every way a candidate) potential vacancy,” wrote O’Halloran.

Editor’s note (March 11): This article has been updated to include further comment from Ahmed, historical context surrounding low participation in UTSU elections, and pre-election actions taken by the UTSU to improve participation in the 2021 elections. This article has also been updated to correct a previous version that indicated that no motions in relation to election participation were passed at the February Board of Directors meeting.

Editor’s note (March 14): This article has been significantly revised to proportionately reflect new information and perspective on the elections, including comment from O’Halloran. The heading, subheading, photo, and introduction of this article has been shifted from a focus on Kalisch’s potential vacancy to a review of the UTSU elections and its low candidate participation in light of a lack of further confirmation that Kalisch has carried out any intention of dropping out of the race. This article has been updated to report on the full scope of the interactions between Kalisch and The Varsity, including Kalisch’s perspective that her notice of departure was not meant to be taken as official comment. The Varsity regrets the course of events that has culminated in this discrepancy. 

Editor’s note (March 16): This article has been updated to clarify the wording around the possible by-election.