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Take Action on Undemocratic CUSA Election

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(TL;DR Version available below in updates)

A student union exists so that students can advocate for themselves—coming together to make sure that their rights are represented within the administration and the wider university community. The student body elects representatives to fulfill this role. According to Article I of the CUSA constitution, the Carleton University Students’ Association shall act as a representative for the entire student body attending Carleton University. Thus, executives of the Carleton University Student Association are advocates for all undergraduate students, making decisions that affect all of the over 26,000 undergraduate students at Carleton deeply. 

It is because of this that the conduct in this election of the Carleton University Students Association is so concerning. The current elections have been conducted in a way that have disenfranchised many on campus, and eroded the trust that students place in the body. 

There are a few reasons for this, which this letter will outline: 

1. All undergraduate students should have been allowed to vote in this election. 

2. Insufficient resources were devoted to alerting the student body as to the impact of the Student Choice Initiative.

3. The treatment of co-op students (and likely others) in this election was not consistent with the Electoral Code promise of transparent and fair elections.  

4. If the Association is of the opinion that non-opted in students should not be able to vote in the Executive and Council elections, they should not have been provided with a referendum-only ballot. 

Firstly, all undergraduate students should have been given the opportunity to vote in this election. There are a few reasons for this. For students who opted into some (but not all) of the fees, their money is part of the fund from which CUSA executive salaries are paid—in essence, they are paying the wages of executives they have been effectively barred from electing. Beyond this, CUSA still has a responsibility to represent undergraduate students who did not opt-in. For CUSA to effectively fulfil its mandate to represent all undergraduate students (as prescribed in Article I of the CUSA Constitution), it is required to carry out such representation regardless of the status of fees (paid or unpaid). Otherwise, the CUSA Constitution would read that CUSA only represents fee-paying undergraduate students. This is not the case. Therefore, all undergraduate students are not only represented by CUSA, but are entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of CUSA as members. This is further reinforced by the fact that CUSA is a non-profit corporation which must, per its Letters Patent and Articles of Incorporation, have a specific class of membership. CUSA currently has only one class of membership that all undergraduate students fall into. A vote by CUSA Council, along with approval from the CUSA membership, would likely be required to alter those articles. If CUSA Council has not established separate classes of membership (dividing those who pay from those who do not), then there is no basis to differentiate benefits in a post-Student Choice Initiative era among paid and unpaid student members. 


Furthermore, changes to the legal status of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) further indicate that all undergraduate students should have been eligible to vote. As of November 2019, The Ontario Divisional Court ruled that Premier Doug Ford’s SCI is unlawful, stating that “the provincial government acted without statutory authority when implementing [the] SCI”. This decision came following a lawsuit filed by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O) and the York Federation of Students. Created last January (2019), the Student Choice Initiative made once mandatory ancillary fees, like the CUSA fees, optional. This allowed students to opt out of not only student unions, but campus newspapers and other faculty groups. 

Due to the current legal status of the SCI, in which the Ontario Divisional Court quashed the Provincial Government’s directive, the idea of voluntary unionism no longer exists. Therefore, effective as of that decision in the winter semester, all undergraduate students at Carleton are considered members of CUSA. If CUSA is to continue operating under the idea of voluntary unionism, in which students must essentially “pay to play” in order to participate in elections, then every voter’s payment of individual fees should be checked. In any given fee, there is administrative overhead that directly contributes to executive budgets, salaries or the General CUSA budget. Therefore, even one CUSA fee paid merits the eligibility of the student to vote in CUSA elections.

On December 18, 2019 the university sent out a mass update to all students regarding the status of the SCI. CUSA should have lobbied the university to include information on what this meant for voting. Since students won’t be able to opt out anymore, students who register for the following school year will have to pay fees that go towards an executive that they were barred from electing. Knowing that students were no longer able to opt out, all undergraduate students should have been able to vote in the elections, or at the very least, all students expected to be at Carleton in the following school year. 

 

Thus, we believe that all undergraduate students should have been given the right to vote. However, even if the decision to bar some from voting were acceptable, the election was conducted in an illegitimate fashion for the following reasons. 

Firstly, insufficient resources were allocated to informing the student body as to the implications of opting out. It should be clarified that the issue here is not that students weren’t provided with enough information on how to get access to voting (which is still an issue) but that students were not properly informed that opting out meant they surrendered voting rights. It is also problematic that students were not informed that voting on the referendum-only ballots would make them ineligible to vote for any Executive or Council candidates before ballots were sent. CUSA waited until mid-day (over six hours after ballots were sent out) to issue directions, which is unacceptable as many students vote as soon as they see the email. 

The Association had many avenues they could have pursued. For one, they could have included the information in their opt-in campaign in the summer, when the issue was top of mind for many students. The only method through which students were informed before the voting period of the changes was a bookmark printed by the Elections Office during the campaign period. This lack of information is particularly harmful for first-time voters (such as first-year students), who are not aware of what the process is meant to look like.  

In the initial university email (June 7, 2019) about the SCI, no mention was made of voting rights, only that many services are funded by optional fees. In an attempt to educate members on the offerings of the association, CUSA launched mystudentfees.ca. Though this link was provided in the email, it is not mentioned anywhere on the site that opting out would disenfranchise those who chose to opt out. 

Due to the fact that the university sent a later email (December 18, 2019) to all students to inform them of the Ontario Divisional Court’s decision to rescind the SCI, it is not unreasonable for CUSA to have requested the administration send all undergraduates an email informing them of the full implications of having opting out and not choosing to opt back in for the winter term. Additionally, the electoral code (Section 3.1) states that the CEO is empowered to hire any additional employees deemed necessary to conduct the affairs of the office. Because the Elections Office saw fit to print educational material to inform students, it is clear that they saw informing the student body as part of their role. Why then was the onus placed upon candidates to inform students, when they were already occupied with informing the electorate of their platforms? The Elections Office should have hired someone with the role of informing students, or explored other avenues through CUSA to inform students beyond the bookmarks. It is wholly unacceptable that CUSA waited until the middle of the first day of the voting period before advising the student body of the implications of the policy, via social media. To be clear, no posts were made alerting students before the posts made by @cusaonline and @cuelections on January 29, 2020. 

It is not the responsibility of students to prove to themselves the value of their student union; that responsibility rests with the student union alone. Students should not be punished for the actions of the provincial government and CUSA’s inaction as it relates to student engagement on their fees. 

It should also be noted that on the Elections 101 page of the CUSA website, it specifically states that "All undergraduate students receive an online ballot via their Carleton email and are able to vote for each executive position and councillor positions for their faculty" under the heading identifying voting days as January 29th, 2020 to January 30th, 2020. This directly contradicts the CUSA statement that it was expressed to students that only those who opted in are eligible. 

Secondly, the treatment of co-op students in this election was not consistent with the provision in the Code that elections be transparent, free and fair (as per the preamble). Co-op students are automatically opted out of the majority of fees except their co-op work term and admin fees. They were not given the opportunity to opt into fees during their work terms. Co-op students on work term thus received a referendum-only ballot, with no explanation that if they used it, they would not be able to vote for Executives and Council. After the issue was brought to the attention of the elections staff, co-op students who were deemed to be eligible were issued a special ballot allowing them to vote for the candidates. This ballot was issued 6 hours after the issue was first raised. It is unacceptable and unfair that co-op students’ voting rights were completely contingent upon dedicated individuals spending their time defending the right to vote that they are owed. 

Finally, if students who did not opt in to all fees are not allowed to vote in Executive and Council elections, they should not have received a ballot at all. Currently, students who opted out were given a ballot that contained only the FundQi referendum question. However, Section 2 of the Code notes that the Code governs all elections, recalls and referenda held by CUSA. Section 10 outlines the specific rules on referenda, mostly regarding the dropping of a Writ of Referendum. Section 1.10 defines a Member as “active members of the Association as set out in the constitution”. Nowhere in the Code (these sections and others) and nowhere in the Writ of Referendum that governs it, are eligibility rules expressed to be different for the referendum than from the election. Therefore, if it is CUSA’s opinion that only students who have opted into all fees are active members, no one should have received a referendum-only ballot. 


This letter has demonstrated why all undergraduate students should have been given the right to vote in the elections. However, even if the Association were entitled to exclude opt-out students, the election should still be seen to have been conducted in an illegitimate fashion because of CUSA’s failure to undertake reasonable measures to inform the student body, the unfair treatment of co-op students, and illegitimate provision of referenda-ballots to opt-out students. 

The reasons denoted in this letter demonstrate that the elections have not been conducted in a legitimate manner. In order to rectify this attack on democracy, the Carleton student body has four demands to mend these wrongdoings by CUSA:


1. That CUSA undertakes a complete recall of the 2020 election, including both the Executive and Council. 

2. That all members of the Carleton undergraduate community—including individuals on exchange, co-op and others—have the ability to vote for the 2020-2021 Executive and Council.

3. That the Constitution and Electoral Code be amended to ensure that this does not occur in the future. 

4. That a public apology be made to students by those responsible for the above acts of voter suppression. 

Yours in democracy, 

Take Back Your Union Carleton



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