Pressure began mounting this week for electoral reform by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
The St. George Roundtable has backed a “non-partisan declaration” calling for reforms that are, according to the three-page document, “both necessary and overdue.”
The declaration was well received by all the nine college leaders who sit on the SGRT. “All of the presidents have agreed that this is necessary,” said Paulina Bogdanova, co-head of college at Trinity. “They’re very basic issues, very basic suggestions,” she said.
Also this week, The Varsity obtained a letter from vice-provost, students Jill Matus to former UTSU president Danielle Sandhu detailing Simcoe Hall’s concerns with the union’s electoral policy in the wake of the spring 2011 elections, and admonishing Sandhu to implement many of the same reforms currently being pushed for by the SGRT declaration.
“I’m sure you know that the complaints, both formal and informal, raised annually about the fairness of UTSU’s election procedures are an on-going concern,” Matus wrote in the January 2012 letter, adding, “Once again, Danielle … it would be a fine outcome of your tenure as President if you were able to bolster confidence in your organization’s electoral system.”
Matus clarified that the concerns raised in the letter remained outstanding via email on Friday.
“We have been given assurances by UTSU that the organization would address the issues raised in the letter no later than the fall of 2012,” wrote Matus. “The president of UTSU repeated this assurance in a meeting several weeks ago.”
Meanwhile, the SGRT declaration’s widespread adoption could add to the urgency for reforms before this spring’s election, an effort that will likely come to a head when the UTSU convenes its annual general meeting on November 22.
The declaration was endorsed by both the University College Literary and Athletic Society (UCLit) and the Trinity College Meeting last week. Other colleges and professional faculty associations will be considering the declaration in the weeks to come.
Benjamin Dionne, president of the UCLit, stresses the importance of “getting the discussion going” with the declaration.
“We decided to support it because it contains genuinely good measures that any democracy cannot, in good faith, turn down,” said Dionne.
Dionne admitted that the UCLit did have some reservations about the declaration, “mostly regarding the membership of the appeal committee.” He added that many of the aspects of the Declaration “are already part of the election code of the UCLit, and are therefore coherent with what we stand for.”
The university administration and the SGRT appear to have raised similar concerns about the optics and policy of UTSU-run elections.
The SGRT declaration calls on the union to address procedural issues by reforming the electoral code. Proposed changes include reviewing the appointment and powers of the chief returning officer, altering the composition and structure of various electoral appeals bodies, and removing financial barriers for candidates. The declaration also advocates a move to online voting and introducing a preferential balloting system.
Various propositions have attracted support in diverse quarters of the university.
Rishi Maharaj, president of the Engineering Society, is supportive of the call for a move to preferential voting. “Student organizations around the world have been leaders in the development and use of preferential voting and its benefits are well documented in academic research,” he said.
Both the declaration and Matus’ letter encourage the UTSU to move to online voting, with the declaration saying that such a move could improve participation rates among “commuting students, students with physical disabilities, and disengaged students.” Matus’ letter cited improved security and increased voter turnout as possible benefits that could arise from online voting.
UTSU remains non-committal
Sam Greene, co-head of college at Trinity, says he sent the declaration to UTSU “a few weeks ago” but has yet to receive a “real affirmative response.”
“We decided to forge ahead to get stakeholder support — we’re looking to the UTSU to commit to these changes,” said Greene.
UTSU president Shaun Shepherd said he has read the declaration and passed it on to the Elections and Referenda Committee. “I’ve passed [it] on, I’ve shared my thoughts in honesty with those people,” said Shepherd.
But Corey Scott, vice-president internal and this year’s chair of the influential Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC), refused to comment on what aspects of the declaration he agreed with, or which of its proposals would receive serious consideration. Scott also refused to provide a timeline for when students could expect a formal response from the union.
“The members of the Elections and Referenda Committee will be more than happy to review and seriously consider the proposals,” Scott said. “It is always a good idea to review policies and procedures to ensure fairness, transparency and access.”
Asked to identify the area most in need of electoral reform, Scott pointed to Professional Experience Year (PEY) engineering students who are unable to vote in their PEY year, even though they return to full-time status the following year, saying the cause was something he would “personally prioritize.”
“Some of these other issues in here … I don’t think that anyone had conversations with Clara Ho [former chair of the ERC] about this stuff last year,” Scott said.
Bogdanova was not pleased with Scott’s response. “I feel like that’s a minor part of a broader issue,” she said. “He’s obviously just nit-picking.”
Concerns at Simcoe Hall
Matus’ letter is the clearest articulation to date of Simcoe Hall’s concerns about the optics of the UTSU’s annual elections. The document strongly recommends that the UTSU “undertake a serious review and overhaul of the process related to elections.”
“This complaint and assertions made about previous UTSU elections clearly indicate that there are students who perceive the electoral system at UTSU to be unfair,” Matus writes in the letter, although she clearly notes that the Office of Student Life found no direct evidence of unfair practices during the 2011 election.
No formal complaints were filed regarding the spring 2012 election that brought the current executive under Shepherd into office.
In the letter, Matus stressed the importance of both policy and perception when it comes to elections. “Electoral procedures must not only be fair, they must be perceived to be fair … in order to avoid perceptions that electoral processes are favouring a particular candidate or group of candidates,” she wrote, outlining six areas of concern to complainants.
Robert Boissoneault, who served as legal director for the 2011 Students’ First slate, submitted one of the 2011 complaints that eventually prompted the letter. (Since 2012, Boissoneault has been a member of The Varsity’s Board of Directors.)
“They [the administration] didn’t want to deal with politics, litigation. They were concerned, I think justifiably, with politics of defunding student unions,” said Boissoneault. He acknowledges that there was no “smoking gun” to prove outright bias in the 2011 election, but maintains that “there are enough little things wrong with this process to call into question its democratic legitimacy.”
The administration has, in the past, intervened in cases of gross corruption on the part of student unions. When The Varsity published transcripts of conversations between ASSU executives in 2007–2008 plotting to rig the election, there followed a high-profile intervention.
Matus explained the rule Friday. “If the Provost has reason to believe that a student society is not operating in an open, accessible and democratic fashion and following the terms of its constitution, the Policy provides procedures for the review of such matters and ultimately, the withholding of fees from the society,” she noted.
Previous calls for reform unheeded
“Typically, election reform is discussed after elections and not during the crucial periods where changes can be made,” explained Scott.
This year’s calls have come early, but Maharaj says he is skeptical that the effort will succeed, having seen annually “some attempt by those opposed to the CFS-affiliated incumbent to craft and pass policy and bylaw changes that would address some of the systemic criticisms of the UTSU.”
“I’ve yet to see a motion passed at any general or board meeting of the UTSU without the approval of the executive,” said Maharaj.
In August 2010, the Engineering Society submitted a detailed call for reform. According to Maharaj, then-UTSU president Adam Awad promised that the ERC would examine the proposal and respond. But nothing came of the plan. “From the minutes available to me, [the consultation] never occurred,” Maharaj claims.
The concerns expressed in Matus’s letter from January 2012 also appear to have gone unheeded thus far. A copy of the union’s electoral policy indicated that the document had not been updated since November 16, 2011.