By Victoria Kuglin and Cosette Schulz
Next week, students will get the chance to once again elect a governing body for the Ryerson Students’ Union. But there is one difference between RSU elections and elections for other governing student bodies: there is no online voting system.
“We’ve found that paper ballots are the most democratic way to vote,” said current RSU president Melissa Palermo. “There are more checks and balances in place, and we’ve gotten a consistently higher voter turnout than other student elections.”
According to Palermo, paper voting is also easier to keep track of: if a candidate loses by a small margin, paper ballots make it easier to do a recount, whereas for online voting, this data is “inaccessible” once voting closes. Though Palermo believes this is a more accountable system, and affords more transparency, both the Board of Governors and senate elections have made the decision to switch over to online polling stations to help give commuter students a better chance to get involved in student politics.
The union’s chief returning officer, Zachary Smith, and internal co-ordinator Casey Chu Cheong oversee the voting process: where and when the voting happens, as well as the method of polling. This year, there are nine voting booths at what Smith calls “high volume areas.”
“I don’t know whether (their choice of location) is based on past practice and they know where to put it,” said Smith. “But I guess it’s based on that.”
The chief returning officer position is a short-term job posted by the RSU, which Smith said he will hold until a few weeks after the election. After an election, the chief returning officer prepares a report evaluating the election process and making suggestions for the future, which is then made available upon request.
Smith said the subject of online voting has never been discussed with him.
“I’m not sure what the numbers tend to be in previous elections,” he said. “If … I could see that the numbers of participation have officially lowered, that might be something I’d be willing to put in my report.”
In order for online voting to be implemented, a policy would have to be drawn up and discussed by the students’ union.
Corey Scott is the Equity and Campaigns Organiser for RyeACCESS, a collective that concerns itself with improving life on campus for students with disabilities.
Scott recognizes the importance of accessibility for students with mobility issues, though says that there are visible declines in voter turnout when polls are opened online.
“We worry that there is a trend to appropriate and assume the experience of students with disabilities rather than to understand what accommodations could look like,” Scott said.
“For instance, if polling stations are located on the main floors, in high traffic areas on campus, why would it be any different than a student without a mobility device or accommodation? If the polling booth was on the plateau of a staircase we would be much more concerned.”
The notion of online voting may seem convenient, but it can prevent exposure to campaigners and remove students from the actual election process if they’re simply using a screen reader rather than walking through school buildings with polling stations, Scott adds.
“Instead of treating disability and accessibility as a subtext for online voting, I think that a lot of students would rather see mental and physical accessibility issues as the main text for election issues,” he said. “That’s how we get engaged.”
Voting stations are typically open for three days. Polls for the 2014 elections are open on Feb. 3-5.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on January 29, 2014.