This opinion piece was originally published on The Fulcrum’s website on February 20, 2013 under the title Clim’s Commentary: Now is the time to take SFUO electoral reform seriously.
NOW THAT THE Student Federation of the University of Ottawa’s (SFUO) elections are over, I think it’s important to highlight the major flaws in the electoral process and to provide concrete suggestions on how to fix them.
Let me start by congratulating all the individuals who stood as candidates in the recent SFUO elections. It takes courage, commitment, and organization to run in any type of election campaign. Furthermore, a message to those whose bids were successful: Make sure you do what you said you would do in your respective electoral platforms. Too many times have grandiose promises been made by candidates who, once elected, failed to deliver. Believe it or not, having a well-oiled campaign machine and sleek sloganeering is the easy part.
In the near future, when people inevitably begin to criticize you and the work you do, don’t hide away in your offices, ignore phone calls and emails, and refuse to give interviews to those tasked with keeping the student population informed. Face the criticism, accept that you may have made a mistake, and, most importantly, take the necessary steps to fix, improve, or alleviate the issue.
The elections committee
During one of their first meetings, members of the SFUO board of administration (BOA) elect three of their peers to sit on the elections committee. This committee is tasked with, among other things, the nomination of the SFUO chief electoral officer (CEO). In November 2012, the SFUO held by-elections to fill vacant seats on the BOA. However, the elections committee had already failed to meet its constitutional obligation to nominate a CEO by no later than August. Therefore, with no CEO in place, current SFUO vp university affairs Elizabeth Kessler and Faculty of Social Sciences board representative Mark Donoghue were entrusted with the administration of the by-elections.
First of all, the elections committee should never be allowed to be the sole administrator of elections. As we now know, Brad Lafortune, the SFUO Pride Centre coordinator (an employee of the SFUO) ran and was elected to one of the vacant faculty director seats. How on earth Kessler (as an SFUO executive, the employer of Lafortune) was allowed to administer that by-election is beyond me. Talk about the appearance of a conflict of interest.
This leads me to my second point: the elections committee should not be filled by members of the BOA or by members of the SFUO executive. The administration of any election should be entrusted to arms-length, independent, and impartial individuals. Once again, Kessler sits on a committee that was tasked with reviewing decisions rendered by the CEO regarding election-related complaints while Anne-Marie Roy—her friend, colleague, and affiliate during the 2012 SFUO elections—was leading the Student Action team during this year’s election. Below, you can see that Kessler and Roy appeared side-by-side in a 2012 SFUO election campaign handbill.
The appearance of a conflict of interest is clear, and it’s why the new members of the BOA should immediately form a sub-committee on electoral reform in order to address such problematic issues. This committee should be sure to consult Election off the shelf: Model for Student Elections, an excellent resource published by Elections Canada and Canada’s former chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley. A call for submissions should be made to the university community and experts’ opinions should be actively sought.
Transparency of the complaints system
On another topic, throughout the election campaign, CEO Osama Berrada received a number of election-related complaints. When I asked him in an email if he would be making complaints and his rulings public, Berrada categorically refused, citing past practices. This is unacceptable.
Not surprisingly, many election officials from other student associations release election-related complaints. The Carleton University Student Association’s (CUSA) chief electoral officer Sunny Cohen was diligent in publishing complaints and updating the CUSA’s membership on which candidates violated electoral rules. In furthering the transparency of the elections complaints process, the electoral board published the appeals it heard, along with its rulings.
Students have a right to know why, for example, the website of the Together Ensemble affiliation was taken offline for a number of days at the beginning of the campaign. Berrada owes it to the student population to ensure that the reasons for the imposition of penalties on candidates and affiliations are made public upon being communicated to those affected. These reports should reproduce the entirety of the complaint received (without necessarily identifying the individual who submitted the complaint), the section(s) of the election regulations that was infringed upon, and the penalty imposed. If that decision is subsequently appealed, the rulings of the elections committee (including similar content, as outlined in the CUSA’s chief electoral officer reports) should also be made public upon the completion of its investigation, rather than remaining secretive.
The hiring of election officers
Adding to the long list of constitutional infractions during the SFUO election is the fact that at least one outgoing faculty director was spotted working as a poll clerk. Marc Donoghue, outgoing Faculty of Social Sciences representative, was photographed working at a polling station in Montpetit Hall.
This contradicts Section 4.10.2 of the SFUO constitution, which states that “an outgoing faculty director cannot be hired as an election officer.” Not only is Donoghue an outgoing faculty director, he is also a member of the elections committee. Why he himself would see it fit to work as a poll clerk is beyond me.
In order to preface what I am about to say about affiliations, I should make it clear that I have always opposed the adoption of what I’ll describe as a party system within the context of campus elections.
When this proposal was brought before the BOA for the first reading during a July 17, 2011 meeting, no real debate occurred. Nobody bothered to look into the possible ramifications of such a major change to the election rules. Furthermore, not one faculty director thought to look at how affiliations have affected elections at other schools. Instead, six directors spoke in favour, including Amy Hammett and Nicole Desnoyers, who at that time argued that it would take away the intimidation factor.
With very little historical data to work with, it’s hard to say what effects affiliations have had on the electoral process. However, if you ask the few independent candidates from this past election, they were almost unanimous in condemning the system.
Criticism of the electoral process is nothing new when it comes to the SFUO. To be sure, in his campaign platform from last year, outgoing president Ethan Plato promised to “introduce a permanent Student Arbitration Committee as a permanent oversight election’s body.” Sadly, Plato has brought forward no such proposal to date. But the time has now come for newly elected faculty directors to take electoral reform seriously.