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Winning UTMSU BBB slate receives retroactive demerit points for unsolicited campaigning

Election reforms anticipated following backlash; Zoom voting criticized for inefficiency
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All Build Back Better slate members received eight demerit points. COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATES
All Build Back Better slate members received eight demerit points. COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATES

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) has recently received criticism from students surrounding its 2021 elections due to claims that the Build Back Better (BBB) slate violated the UTMSU’s Election Procedure Code (EPC) for unsolicited campaigning. 

After advocacy from students, the UTMSU’s Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) issued eight demerit points to all five members of the BBB slate on March 22 for “Unsolicited Campaigning,” though they remain winners of the election. 

The BBB slate denied the allegations, noting that its campaign messages were in line with the EPC and that it did not intend to spam students with messages. The EPC is expected to change for future elections to restrict social media campaigning.

Students have also criticized the virtual election process, which they describe as inefficient, as well as the election as a whole for being uncontested. However, current Vice-President Internal Fahad Dayala, who also serves as Chair of the ERC, noted that the voting method was meant to simulate in-person voting and was the most feasible option given the circumstances. 

In this year’s executive elections, four of five positions were uncontested, and all five were won by members of the BBB slate. Based on the unofficial election results released by the UTMSU on March 19, this year’s presidential elections had a voter turnout of 7.5 per cent, almost half of last year’s elections, which had a turnout of 14.7 per cent. 

Open letter alleging EPC violations 

Some students expressed disapproval of the way BBB candidates reached out to students over the course of the campaigning period, claiming that candidates “spammed” potential voters. Two students started a template letter directed to the chief returning officer (CRO), alleging that some candidates’ behaviour in advertising their campaigns violated the EPC. 

The letter alleged that BBB used “predatory campaigning tactics” and that some of its messages constitute harassment, which would be a violation of the EPC. It also claimed that screenshots of messages show BBB slate members pressuring students to vote, saying things like, “Once you’re done voting please do let me know and I promise I won’t bug you again after this.”

The letter went on to express concern over the mass messages that some candidates have allegedly sent directly to students on social media, which the letter claimed are, “the exact same set of messages, or extremely similar messages, which is an equivalent of spam.” 

In an email to The Varsity, Shen Fernando, a co-author of the letter template and a second-year political science student at UTM, wrote that he felt the campaigning tactics used by the BBB team were “aggressive” and violated the EPC. 

“When understanding online privacy, we need to take into account that a student’s personal phone number, personal privated Instagram account, etc. is their own private space,” he wrote, noting that students cannot easily escape messages that are sent to their own social media accounts.

In the letter template, Fernando and his co-author wrote that their message is “not meant to be a personal attack towards any of the BBB members,” but is intended to shed light on concerns from UTM students. 

Vice-President Internal Dayala wrote in his email that, “similar to in-person elections, candidates are allowed to campaign on social media in accordance with the Elections Procedure Code… Direct messaging through social media allows candidates to have conversations with voters, share ideas and ask questions similar to in-person campaigning.” 

In an email to The Varsity, UTMSU CRO Juliana Salsa wrote that direct messaging through social media is “not against the EPC as it stands.”

Tala Al-Ghazali, a first-year environmental management student at UTM, wrote to The Varsity that while she does not mind candidates using social media to advertise their campaigns, she finds candidates direct messaging students through their personal accounts inappropriate. “I felt like I was being spammed. Many different candidates texted me on different PERSONAL social media platforms including Instagram and LinkedIn,” she wrote.

Al-Ghazali wrote that she is “not sure” how candidates found her social media accounts and feels that her privacy was violated. “I don’t think the elections were run in an appropriate manner.” 

A second-year student majoring in psychology and biology, Anaum Arif, wrote to The Varsity that she was not persuaded to vote because of the candidates’ credentials, but because they were “[constantly] messaging asking [her] to vote (specifically for them).”

Response from the Build Back Better team 

In an email to The Varsity, the BBB team wrote that its message box to students was pre-approved by the CRO to ensure it was in line with the EPC. The team also denied further accusations that candidates who are current executives of the UTMSU used the union’s resources to find and contact students. 

“Throughout the election, we asked students for their emails to share our platform and important information about the election,” the BBB team wrote. It shared that it sent three emails in total and “only had 7 people unsubscribe from the list.” The team also noted that the EPC does not restrict any platforms on which online campaigning can take place. 

The team wrote that because its members included individuals who had been involved in clubs, student societies, and the UTMSU, they had formed contacts over time. “The same way we reached out to people on social media who we’ve followed throughout the year, we reached out to people via text and phone call.” 

The BBB team also wrote that because some volunteers helped, the team “[imagines] that unknowingly volunteers and candidates messaged people multiple times.” 

“There was no way for us to track who people are talking to,” wrote the team. “Our honest intention was to reach out to students, share our vision for the upcoming year and ensure that students participate in the electoral process.”

Students successfully appeal to CRO, ERC

On March 22, the UTMSU’s ERC issued eight demerit points for “Unsolicited Campaigning” to all five members of the BBB slate. In an email to Fernando, Dayala wrote that the ERC reviewed the appeal that alleged further EPC violations and unanimously decided to uphold the CRO’s ruling of the eight demerit points per candidate. 

The ruling did not issue demerit points for harassment, use of UTMSU resources, or soliciting club and academic society endorsements, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. 

However, going forward, the CRO has made recommendations to change the EPC, which will be presented to the board for approval.

One major amendment states that candidates can only message students on a social media platform if they are somehow connected on the platform, such as by being a ‘follower,’ ‘connection,’ or ‘friend,’ or if they have consented to receive updates on the campaign. 

In response to the updates, Fernando wrote that he is “ecstatic about the fact that we were able to make these changes.” While he believes the CRO and the ERC could have done more than just the eight demerit points per candidate, he wrote that “this is a good first step that provides us with an opening we can use to further increase the accountability and transparency of UTMSU.”

“I think this was a great example of how students can participate in the democratic, electoral processes that exist within their students’ union,” Dayala wrote. “I think it’s a win for students, the candidates and the union.”

UTMSU voting process during COVID-19

Students have also criticized the UTMSU’s voting procedure this year. While a number of student unions use U of T’s voting.utoronto.ca system, which allows students to log in with their UTORid and cast their vote directly online, the UTMSU used an alternative method for their elections this year to simulate an in-person election. 

The voting process that the UTMSU undertook for its 2021 elections began with a Zoom link to a virtual polling station. Students were then required to enter the polling station through Zoom and provide the clerks their name and student number. 

The clerks then verified that the student was an eligible voter and provided a unique voting code and the link to the voting platform, ElectionBuddy. Student voters were then asked to leave the Zoom call and cast their ballot independently through ElectionBuddy. 

Salsa wrote, “In comparison to in-person voting… the only difference was that the polling station was on Zoom instead of on campus and instead of a paper ballot students filled out an ‘online ballot’ through ElectionBuddy.”

However, some students criticized the election process for being inefficient. In a number of Reddit posts, students expressed discontent at the UTMSU’s decision to virtually simulate an in-person voting process rather than using an online voting platform that would allow students to vote directly online. 

During its 2018 Annual General Meeting, the UTMSU rejected a motion to adopt online voting in its elections and instead voted to continue using an in-person voting system. In an email to The Varsity, Dayala wrote that the UTMSU’s Elections and Referenda Committee explored various options to make voting accessible while still fulfilling its 2018 mandate. 

These included telephone voting platforms and mail-out ballots, both of which were passed over in favour of ElectionBuddy. “Using ElectionBuddy was the most suitable option given these circumstances,” he wrote. Dayala also shared that the voting process took around three minutes and created over 30 jobs for students.

Students also criticized the lack of contested elections. When asked what the UTMSU had done to encourage people to run, especially during the pandemic, Dayala responded that the union began promoting elections on different platforms, including its social media and website, in February 2021 to inform students about elections and encourage people to run.