By: Gabi Herman and Isaac Kinley
From Jan. 26-28, in addition to electing their next McMaster Students Union President, McMaster students will be able to vote in a referendum concerning the election of MSU Vice Presidents. The MSU has three Vice Presidents: Administration, Education and Finance. Currently, the Vice Presidents are elected by the Student Representative Assembly, a student council that includes faculty representatives and the current MSU President and Vice Presidents.
The current referendum will allow students to vote in favour of keeping the current system or switching to an at-large vice presidential election. Since this change would require altering the MSU constitution, the “yes” side will have to garner at least two thirds of the vote in order for it to pass.
The motion was put forward by Eric Gillis (SRA Social Sciences) at the 2015 MSU General Assembly in March. Earlier this school year, the Student Mobilization Syndicate uploaded a petition to Change.org asking that the question of direct election of Vice Presidents be put to McMaster students in a referendum. The petition gathered more than 800 written signatures and subsequently, the SRA voted to hold the referendum. However, going into the campaign period, they voted to maintain a neutral position on the referendum question. Looking forward, students will have to decide where they stand on the issue.
The referendum question, as it will appear on the ballot, is:
This referendum concerns the MSU Vice President elections. Currently, the three Vice President positions are elected through the Student Representative Assembly (SRA). A proposal has been put forth to move the Vice President elections away from the current system to an at large election. The format of this at large election is currently undefined and can take on many forms.
This is a constitutional referendum, which means it requires two thirds of the vote to pass. Abstentions will not be included in calculating the vote.
Are you in favour of changing the MSU Constitution to include an at large MSU Vice President Election?
For more information, visit https://www.msumcmaster.ca/services-directory/31-elections-department/referendum-2016. Information on the “Yes” side campaign is available at http://www.vpref.ca/
Below, two Silhouette contributors examine the advantages and drawbacks of both positions.
The “Yes” side:
There are a number of problems with the current system. For one, while a respectable 42 percent of eligible students turned out to vote in the 2015 presidential election, most faculties saw turnouts below 30 percent in the SRA elections. This means that the people tasked with choosing vice-presidents are themselves only elected by a small minority of MSU members.
Furthermore, there’s little anonymity in a group as small at the SRA. If its members know Vice Presidential candidates personally, this will likely bias their vote and impede their ability to make a disinterested choice on behalf of all McMaster students.
Allowing the entire MSU membership to elect its Vice Presidents would solve both these problems. If voter turnout for vice presidential elections is close to that of our presidential elections, this would make VPs not only directly elected by McMaster students, but elected by a larger proportion of them than are represented in the SRA.
Additionally, vice presidential candidates would have to make their cases to the student body directly rather than behind closed doors to the SRA, increasing the transparency of the election and giving students a better idea of the platforms of student government hopefuls.
It seems odd to have people as powerful as the Vice Presidents elected by an intermediary group that only represents a small minority of eligible voters. Voting “yes” in the upcoming referendum will allow McMaster students to have a greater say in the decisions affecting them.
The “No” side:
Selecting a vice presidential team is no easy job. The election process for each Vice President is a long process. Every candidate is required to meet individually with each member of the SRA. This allows every SRA member to gain a deep understanding of each candidate’s platform, one that would be near impossible to achieve for every student at large. In fact, the job has become so difficult that last year’s meeting lasted 22 hours. A motion for all MSU members to be eligible to vote for VPs will be voted on in a referendum this coming election, but many believe it would not be the right decision.
An at-large vote would require VP candidates to campaign, which many report make VP positions less accessible to prospective candidates. Robyn Fishbein, a fourth year Sociology student, was a voting member of the VP Election Reform Ad-Hoc Committee last summer. “It’s not the VP’s job to be the face of the organization, and I think that makes a really big difference,” says Fishbein. Vice Presidents work mostly behind the scenes, while the MSU President and SRA members have inherently public roles. The highly public nature of the campaign creates a barrier to students who are ultimately interested in holding leadership roles that are less public than the President and SRA members.
The challenges of allowing all MSU members to vote also include student disengagement. The Ad-Hoc Committee report points out that at-large voters may be vulnerable to “voter fatigue,” which might contribute to a lower voter turnout. The VP elections would also require many names and positions on one ballot; with more names on a ballot, voters are more likely to vote at random. And, says Fishbein, “let’s face it, so many elections can get annoying.”
Although counterintuitive, many believe that the MSU democracy functions best without more opportunities to vote. Regardless of the result of the referendum, major restructuring will have to take place to prevent more inefficient, daylong meetings.