Hey full-time UTSG undergraduates, do you remember slates during the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections? Hello UofT, 1UofT, Demand Better, We the Students, Whomst’d’ve UofT? Probably not. Slates have been banned since the spring 2019 election cycle at your union — you would have to be a UTSC or UTM student to experience them.
Slates were one-time parties in which candidates vying for various positions would band together to coordinate a campaign, share slogans, and convey a common vision for the coming year of student politics. They would be reflected in classic Varsity group photos or high-production YouTube videos.
At its 2018 fall annual general meeting, the UTSU abolished slates. The aim was to help make elections more accessible for independent candidates who did not belong to slates and to eliminate a perceived culture of exclusivity built around the system. These were important objectives — but the three elections since that decision have shown serious shortcomings.
This new slateless era of UTSU elections has heralded an age of election vacancies and uncontested races. In 2019, three of seven executive positions were initially vacant, with subsequent by-elections seeing the important vice-president operations role remain uncontested. In 2020, one of six executive positions was initially vacant, and two core positions — vice-president operations and vice-president public & university affairs — were uncontested. This year, four of six executive positions — a majority — are uncontested, including the president race for the first time in recent memory.
A lack of participation in elections — and, more specifically, a lack of competition — is a serious problem that the UTSU needs to address immediately. Of course, the optics of candidates running unopposed with no one to test them, and with virtually guaranteed jobs and significant power next year, are not good. Deeper than that, this reflects the UTSU’s overall engagement problem in relation to its membership. It is no surprise, for example, that no general members submitted motions at the latest annual general meeting.
Of course, disengagement is not the fault of this year’s executive members alone. They are also dealing with a pandemic that has disconnected students from campus, and credit must be given to their recent pre-election measures to make the nomination process more accessible. Rather, the problem is years in the making. Unfortunately, while the UTSU discusses engagement during elections every year, the conversation stops afterward until the following year’s election.
That is why big, structural changes need to take place to address not only elections but engagement as a whole.
First, for elections: the UTSU should consider bringing back slates. It was easier to identify and be attracted to the organized visions that these slates presented, as opposed to the currently disparate set of candidates who have their own agendas. Also, being fully transparent that we are an organization that covers these elections closely, we can attest that there’s a certain level of anticipation, life, and spice that has been sucked out of the process without slates.
More importantly, participation and competition were more likely with slates, as seen in the 2016 and 2017 elections. Of course, this wasn’t guaranteed — in 2018, the last year of slates, there was only one complete slate and three uncontested positions. However, it’s clear that getting rid of slates only exposed and worsened the engagement problem.
And while independent candidates are now the norm, it’s not the case that they had no hope previously — former UTSU president Anne Boucher, who advocated for the removal of slates, became vice-president external in 2017 as an independent.
While there is the valid argument that slates catered to elite groups of students, that must be balanced with the significance of fostering engagement. We should be able to see healthy debates between those running to ensure that those elected are the best choice and speak to the voters the most, not because they are the only options.
Of course, bringing back slates is only a partial — and potentially superficial — solution to the problem. The UTSU must treat its engagement problem year-round, including during the summer and the fall, and not just leading up to elections in the winter semester. It must invest significant resources toward cultivating a culture of participation and engagement.
It would be interesting, for example, if the union established a new ‘vice-president engagement’ office that was dedicated to developing engagement strategies from the first day of their term — such as regularly meeting and working with student leaders of clubs, colleges, and faculties to generate literacy and interest in elections. It’s this kind of outreach and encouragement that could potentially lead to a healthy combination of both slates and viable independent candidates who have built up a track record in their constituency.
A new vice-president position may, of course, seem unreasonable — an expanded vice-president student life portfolio could also achieve the same purpose with more contracted hours to prioritize engagement. What is clear, in the end, is that bold, long-term strategies with resources to back them up, rather than last-minute fixes, are necessary to normalize a culture of student body participation in UTSU politics.
Given the lacklustre elections in recent years, the UTSU must treat engagement as an existential issue. With the next academic year anticipated to be a post-pandemic one with more in-person activities, we hope that the union takes the opportunity to re-invent itself.
The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected].