From a quiet office tucked away on the fourth floor of the Shatner building, Elections SSMU takes on a huge task. It is the branch of student government responsible for enabling the political participation of all 25,000 members of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). Amidst the chaos of the upcoming Fall referendum period, Ben Fung, SSMU’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), reflects on his organization’s core mandate.
“You have student democracy happening on SSMU Council, but that’s representative democracy,” Fung explains. “If you want every single person participating, there are only two ways of doing it; General Assemblies (GAs), or elections and referenda. The role for Elections SSMU is to be the impartial body that manages [both], and allows […] student democracy at large to happen.”
As with most modern democratic systems, SSMU typically operates on this representative basis—executives, councillors, and senators who have been elected by the student body are responsible for the day-to-day operation of SSMU. Even within this framework, however, students can participate directly through biannual referenda, in which issues are voted on by the entire membership. The end of the academic year brings the opportunity for students to reflect on the quality of the representation they have received and elect those who will steer the ship for the year to come.
These moments, when the student body engages directly with the political process, are when Elections SSMU comes in. It is responsible for conducting all of SSMU’s elections and referenda; this includes overseeing technical and administrative aspects of the campaign periods, acting as a resource to the campaigns, and reaching out to students to encourage participation. All the while, it must also act as an arbiter and a watchdog, ensuring that everything from campaigning practices to referendum wording is up to code.
Fung (U2 Science) leads the Elections SSMU team, which also consists of Deputy Electoral Officer David Koots (L2 Law), and Elections Coordinator Hannah Rackow (U4 Arts). Even once the second elections coordinator position—for which hiring is currently underway—is filled, it is a small team with a daunting mission.
The importance of adaptation and interpretation
Just like the rest of SSMU, the Elections team is governed by the constitution and bylaws of the society. These lay out all of the guidelines and regulations by which Elections SSMU operates; some of these are the rules that must be enforced during campaign, while others detail internal processes—such as the official procedure for counting ballots.
With every advance in electoral procedures or technology, the bylaws must also change to accommodate such advances. For example, in 2003 SSMU voted in favour of implementing an online voting system. While this innovation facilitates student participation and greatly increases accessibility to the political process, it also brought with it logistical complications and a plethora of new regulations to ensure that the online voting met the same quality and privacy standards as physical polling. These changes can now all be found in the bylaws.
The tweaking of the bylaws is a perpetually ongoing project. Hubie Yu, last year’s CEO, left behind a list of bylaws which she feels need to be added, many of which stem from ambiguities in the rules that she encountered during her tenure.
“This is something I told [Fung] about, as it happened several times last year. Many candidates try to take advantage of bylaws that are up for interpretation, and would try to argue and convince me to see it their way,” Yu explained. “This is a tough situation as some bylaws don’t specifically say that they can’t do [certain things], but also don’t clearly state that they can.”
Fung recounts such a situation from this year’s First Year Council (FYC) elections in September.
“I had a student come up to me the other day, and she’s running for FYC. There’s a limit on the [size of posters], and she asked me how close [together] the posters could be; she wanted to paste them to make a bigger poster,” he laughed. “When students get really creative and we learn about things that we haven’t encountered before, then there becomes a need to introduce new bylaws—and there’s always a need to introduce new bylaws.”
In the meantime, Fung explained, even having found a need for revision, the CEO must make a ruling interpreting the bylaws as they stand. “My authority and my interpretation just comes from the constitution and by-laws, and I do my best to represent the spirit of the constitution and by-laws. And try not to get ‘J-Boarded.’”
The sole body that can overturn an Elections SSMU decision is the SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board), a panel of five full-time students from the McGill Faculty of Law. Any member of the society can bring a case to the J-Board, and after review they can chose to conduct a full investigation.
Elections SSMU (then referred to as Elections McGill) was involved in a high-profile case after the Fall 2011 referendum, when then-CEO Rebecca Tacoma was brought before the J-Board for allegedly failing to fulfill the duties of her position.
The case centred around QPIRG’s existence referendum, for which it claimed the wording of the question was unclear. It also alleged campaign violations from the ‘Yes’ committee, and claimed that Tacoma had failed to demonstrate diligence and impartiality while carrying out her duties. Although the personal charges against Tacoma were not upheld, the result of the referendum was invalidated and it was held again in the spring.
For Yu, who took office the following year, this case was a reminder of the level of scrutiny aimed at Elections SSMU.
“During my time as CEO, it definitely made me very careful. When I made decisions, I sometimes would think about whether it could be justified if it [got] to J-Board,” Yu wrote. “CEO’s get J-Boarded pretty often. We only hear about the [cases] that get accepted by J-Board, but I was told that petitions [get] submitted—sometimes they’re just not accepted.”
While a review by the J-Board is a concern for all members of Elections SSMU, the CEO is both the final decision-maker and the front line of accountability.
“In the constitution, the office of the CEO is synonymous with Elections SSMU, which is just another way of saying that the CEO is held responsible for all the decisions Elections SSMU makes,” Fung said. “It’s a way of holding us accountable for the decisions we’re making, and making sure we are following the constitution and bylaws.”
Confronting student apathy
While some students do seek to hold the organization accountable, others seem not to care at all. Elections SSMU continues to have extremely low visibility and awareness amongst students. This is a serious problem for an organization plagued with chronically low voter turnout. Last year’s Winter election was considered a success with 29.1 per cent of students showing up to the polls; Fall referendum periods generally experience even lower turnout.
Student apathy is a significant challenge faced by SSMU as a whole, but there are few opportunities to quantify it the way that an election can. As such, it is very easy for the issue of apathy to fall to Elections SSMU. According to former SSMU President Josh Redel, the Elections team has a role to play in this issue, but the burden of responsibility has to be shared.
“You’d call the Elections SSMU [team] apolitical and purely logistics, and [yet] voter apathy is a political problem, [so it’s] something that would fall within [the SSMU] executive’s role,” Redel said. “It’s [Elections SSMU’s] role to get people out to vote, but not to get them interested in SSMU [itself].”
Current VP University Affairs Joey Shea expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s up to the students, once they’ve heard the speeches and seen the chalkboards, whether they’re going to click on that email,” she said. “That’s not Elections SSMU’s responsibility.”
At times, however, apathy has morphed into negativity and hostility. Yu received angry—and at times vulgar—emails and tweets in response to her outreach efforts during last year’s election period.
“Most of the negative emails I received last year acknowledge the importance of elections, but they just don’t care,” Yu said. “I think people are sick of getting listservs, and sick of constantly getting information forced onto them, via class announcements or when candidates are handing out flyers,” Yu wrote.
Fung says he learned from Yu’s approach.
“Hubie’s philosophy was ‘Don’t let the haters get you down,’” he recalled. “She had no problems powering through it, and it was quite impressive.”
The pains of being apolitical
While there are always ideas and initiatives within Elections SSMU to engage its membership and increase accessibility, its status as an arms-length agency of SSMU provides a logistical obstacle to any major institutional change.
While it technically falls under the President’s portfolio, none of its actions or initiatives can reflect the politics of the sitting president. Redel expressed the frustration that came with this semi-independent status.
“How do we find that balance where I’m not interfering or influencing Elections SSMU, but still putting into place some new projects—like the new elections software [and] videos in the ballots,” he said. “I think that’s why we always see, year to year, in the end, the same stuff put forward, because there’s so many of these nuances in the politics of things and the boundary between SSMU and Elections SSMU that don’t let us work to find those creative solutions in the middle.”
While some initiatives were successfully brought to fruition, such as video pensketches for elections candidates, and increased web presence, there were also roadblocks put up by this division. There was an idea to put hyperlinks to external resources and background information into the text of referendum questions, though it was brought to a halt when the concern arose of how to choose an unbiased range of sources.
“The issue with that is inherently it’s going to be political,” Redel pointed out. “So it’s that never-ending circle of how to inform people. No matter what you do, even if you list articles from all sides, you’re going to be missing something, or someone’s going to think you’re missing something.”
An unavoidable reality of Elections SSMU is that regularly scheduled events will always take precedence over all other potential plans. Already this year it has conducted the FYC elections, and the student nomination period for the Fall referendum is open until Oct. 11.
Nevertheless, there are also bigger-picture projects and initiatives for the year already underway. Fung has ambitions to establish mobile polling stations by equipping elections officers with iPads rented from the library, and is already contemplating his outreach strategy for the Winter election and referendum period—easily the biggest event of the year for Elections SSMU.
“Exactly how that’s going to turn out we’re not sure yet, because it could be something like sharks and gorillas fighting each other, or it could be more like awareness campaigns you see everywhere else,” Fung said, gesturing to last year’s SSMU Executive candidate debate posters, which featured various animals engaged in combat.
For Fung, however, the most important legacy that he can leave behind will be found in the constitution and bylaws.
“It’s the institutional memory—it’s what stays through generation after generation,” Fung said. “That’s why the [constitutional reform] process works so well, because the avenues for change are there.”