For the first time in eight years, a member of a non-incumbent slate appears to have won an executive position with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the association that represents full-time students at U of T’s Mississauga and downtown St. George campuses.
That’s significant because the UTSU has been embroiled in controversy in recent years, including accusations that it runs elections in ways that make it nearly impossible for non-incumbents to win. For example, the union leadership resisted electoral reforms including a switch to online ballots last year, though that was eventually implemented after a threat from the administration. In recent years, incumbents brought in friends from other Canadian Federation of Students-affiliated student unions to campaign for them. This year, opposition members expressed outrage when Rajean Hoilett, incoming Ryerson Students’ Union president, claimed to be a U of T student while campaigning on behalf of the incumbent slate, U of T Voice.
The unofficial results of last week’s election, announced Monday, showed that U of T Voice won four of five executive positions: Yolen Bollo-Kamara, current vice-president equity, appears to have won the presidential race along with Voice members Cameron Wathey, Grayce Slobodian, and Najiba Ali Sardar in three of the four vice-president positions. Pierre Harfouche, who is from the opposing slate, Unite, appears to have won the other vice-president spot.
But it’s not over yet. All of the races were close and both sides are expected to ask for recounts after every race featured a very high number of spoiled ballots. For example, Slobodian received 2,574 votes, edging out Unite competitor Nicky Bhatty’s 2,559 by just 15 votes with 1,264 spoiled ballots. Some students who supported Unite are already raising concerns about those spoiled ballots. “I find the numbers to be very peculiar,” says Aidan Fishman, a representative on Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision making body.
Unite ran on a platform of trying to resolve disputes with dissatisfied campus groups. Last year, students at Trinity College and Victoria College (U of T groups its students on the St. George campus into seven “colleges”) and the Faculty of Engineering voted to leave the union, decisions UTSU refused to recognize. The groups argued that their respective local student associations could better represent them after, according to them, UTSU engaged in years of undemocratic practices, such as refusing to allow certain motions to be considered at annual meetings and disproportionately penalizing opposition candidates in elections. The university administration had been trying to mediate over the past year, but UTSU withdrew from these discussions in the middle of the campaign. U of T Voice ran on a platform of introducing a fall reading week and advocating for increased mental health supports on campus. Both slates said they would work to lower tuition fees, increase clubs funding and move forward with construction of the Student Commons, a student centre that the administration won’t allow to go ahead until the conflicts are resolved.
Ben Crase, a member of the UTSU board and co-head of Trinity College, says that the opposition slate faced an uphill battle because U of T Voice’s incumbent candidates were closely involved with those in charge of the electoral process. Bollo-Kamara and Wathey sat on the Elections and Referenda Committee this year, which hired Chief Returning Officer Alex Flor and set the rules for the election. The chair of that committee, which decides appeals on any CRO decision, is Munib Sajjad, the current UTSU president.
Crase is suspicious of the high number of spoiled ballots and other alleged irregularities including the decision to extend voting at the Mississauga campus Friday, which the CRO said was done because the campus closed early on Thursday due to bad weather. Voting was not extended online, however, or for students at the downtown St. George campus, which did not close. Unite also raised concerns with Flor about the presence of an extra polling station at Mississauga on the added day of voting that they claim they were not informed about. Unite requested the votes at the polling station be thrown out, which Flor denied. “What happened with Mississauga was completely unfair,” says Harfouche. “How are we supposed to compete when only one slate knows where all the places to vote are?”
Unite was also not allowed to publish their website and some posters for the first 36 hours of the election because Flor had not approved them. They wanted to say students pay $345.48 to the union but Flor told them they had to change that number to approximately $17, the per semester amount the union uses to operate after distributing funds earmarked for things like health insurance plans. According to UTSU rules, the CRO must approve all campaign material. Flor subsequently gave Unite a combined 29 “demerit points” for, among other offenses, speaking to The Varsity. Candidates are disqualified if they accumulate enough demerit points.
After the procedural hurdles, the withdrawals began. On March 4, Voice candidate Candi Chin-Sang dropped out of the race and endorsed Unite. On March 6, the only independent executive candidate, Luis Moreno, dropped out at the all candidates debate and endorsed Unite.
On March 14, Flor disqualified Unite candidate Anna Yin and fined her $795. Yin was accused of a number of offenses such as making false statements. On appeal, her disqualification was overturned, though she still has to pay a fine of $360.
The unofficial results need to be ratified by the UTSU’s board once all recounts and procedural complaints have been addressed. The board is tentatively scheduled to meet this Friday.
Zane Schwartz, an international relations student, is news editor of The Varsity.