University Students’ Council elections is an annual event that happens on campus in January-February. It would be nice to say it’s a big event with many students engaged, discussing and debating platforms, but alas, that’s not the case. Since 2012, the system to elect USC executives has changed quite a bit with many different proposals.
The Evolution of the Slate System
In 2012, then-USC president, Adam Fearnall decided to radically change the USC executive structure. He proposed students elect a slate of three candidates (President, Vice President Internal, and Vice President External) together instead of just electing the USC President. This means, if a candidate wants to run for President, they need to find two people to run alongside. Also, it was proposed that the winning slate have the power to hire the rest of their executive: Vice President Communications, Vice President Finance, and Vice President Student Events. The idea to have the elected slate hire their executive team was strongly criticized by The Gazette and was rejected by council after a heavy debate. The three executive positions remained to be elected by USC council (made up of faculty and affiliate presidents, councillors, and executives) until 2014.
Fast forward to 2014, then-USC president, Matt Helfand wanted to have the executive selection altered again. He proposed that the VP Communications position and the Chief of Staff intern position be merged in the role of Communications Officer. He further proposed VP Finance be given more governance responsibility and the position be called Secretary-Treasurer. After much debate, this passed at Council.
This year, the three person slate system celebrated three years of existence, but no one was actually celebrating but instead brainstorming its removal. So current-USC president Sophie Helpard proposed to change the system again. The new system asked students to elect a slate of two candidates, President and Vice President.The Vice President would advocate for students to all levels of government and campus administration. It would combine a lot of the responsibilities held by VP Internal and VP External bringing the USC executive from a team of six to a team of five.
A lot of the responsibilities held by VP Internal dealt with the front-end delivery of services reducing the time left for advocacy. In the proposal, these responsibilities will be passed on to the new role of Student Programming Officer (SPO) so the new combined Vice President role can focus solely on internal and external advocacy efforts. The SPO blends the current role of VP Student Events with the role of supervising any programming and services offered by the USC. The executive wanted the position to be hired through a “community hiring” process where anyone in the campus community could interview candidates in a town hall facilitated by Human Resources. This would replace the previous internal council election method where incoming and outgoing councillors would cast their votes.
In my four years at Western, there has been some kind of governance change every year. Now has it worked? Let’s see.
2012/2013: There were 3 slates with only one female president candidate. Voter turnout was low and there was a system hack that led to revoting and a delayed announcement of election results.
2013/2014: There were only two slates with one slate candidate being a graduate student who found a loophole in the bylaw to be eligible to run. Voter turnout was 19.6%.
2014/2015: There were only two slates again, but there was more gender parity with three men and three women. The winning slate won by 32 votes and was disqualified two months after an appeals board recalculated election rule violations. Voter turnout was 23.7% with more people voting for the Marching Band referendum than a USC slate – in fact, 1,314 voters out of a total 7,747 abstained from voting for in the USC slate category altogether.
2015/2016: The most recent election started out unpromising when in the last week of nominations, there was still only one slate running. This was the first election with the two person slate model. As the deadline approached, four more slates signed up, some within hours of the deadline. It was going to be the most exciting race since the arrival of the slate system, but a few days into the election, two slates withdrew. Voter turnout was 24.1% and 10.1% abstained from voting in the USC presidential election.
What happened to democracy?
Before the era of the slate system, voter turnout averaged around 30%. It was not great, but it was definitely better than what we see now. Pre-slate system era, the USC elections saw more candidates running for president, and more diversity among candidates. One could argue students needed time to warm up to the slate system which is why voter turnout was so low. But voter turnout for the USC executive still stands out as low despite this – especially when people are actively choosing to abstain. More and more students seem frustrated with the lack of diverse candidates on campus.
The USC walks a fine line between being a council and being a corporation. There needs to be a balance between picking competent executives that meet the job requirements and executives that work for and represent the students and were chosen through a form of democracy.
The slate system limits how much say a student has in who represents them by bundling executives together. Often times, students say they’d rather pick one person from one slate but not their running mate. Unable to exert full independence over their decision, it becomes really easy to be apathetic about it all. If the USC wants to engage students, it has to provide students the independence to pick their representatives and not be entangled in a “Buy One, Get One/Two Free” scheme. However, in practise to have students be fully content with their representatives is a dream. We should acknowledge not everyone will be pleased with the election results. It is a valid concern when students feel forced to compromise for the “lesser of the two evils” when picking a slate. It is important to draw attention to how more students choose to not vote at all or skip the USC slate category. The system isn’t perfect, but it needs to be willing to change and adapt to what the students are saying.