October 20, 2014

Commentary | October 15, 2012
One click, one vote?
Reflections on online voting and GAs
Written by | Visual by Jacqueline Brandon

As you may be aware, (but let’s face it, most people probably aren’t), the SSMU Fall General Assembly (GA) will be held on October 15 at 4:30 p.m. SSMU holds general assemblies once per term (unless a special GA is called on some topic), and they can make decisions on all types of issues concerning SSMU and its membership, except changes to the SSMU constitution, staff, or finances.

Until recently, the rules for voting in a GA were straightforward: one person, one vote. Anyone can present a motion, and anyone can second it. If you can’t make it to the assembly, take it up at the next one. Simple. But with a rash of GAs actually accomplishing things this spring, certain factions pushed through motions that would fundamentally change the character of general assemblies by putting voting online.

Now, I’ve been to a fair number of GAs, and here’s the thing: I’m basically never an expert on all of the topics discussed, and, in some cases, I don’t even have an opinion going in. But because of the unique structure of GAs, in which people get up to speak for and against the motions proposed, I always learn something in the process. And even on topics I feel passionate about, I’ve supported amendments that would scale back a particularly strong position when it becomes clear that a more moderate stand would better represent the feeling of the room. I’ve seen others do the same. Because in the end, the point of a GA is to make decisions collectively.

None of this can happen in the same way online. If you’ve spent any time looking at The Daily’s comment sections online, you’ll understand why I’m skeptical of our community’s ability to speak to each other respectfully and listen to each other thoughtfully enough to actually change each others’ minds on the internet. Up- and down-votes don’t give nearly as much useful feedback as a room full of people nodding along or glaring at you. More practically, within a GA, people typically use a process of discussion and amendment to get to positions a majority of voters can get behind. With voting extended online, some voters will have heard arguments from their classmates, asked clarifying questions, thought about the issues together, and perhaps even introduced amendments to the motions, while others will vote with a single yes/no click as if it were a referendum. Do you believe that both of those votes carry the same weight? I’m not at all convinced.

Proponents of online voting argued that requiring people to be physically present at a GA in order to vote discriminates against those who can’t be there. The solution to this problem is not to weaken GAs by turning them into referenda, but instead to hold more general assemblies. Members of SSMU need more than one opportunity per semester to make their voices heard on the issues that matter to them. Students in various departments could accomplish a lot more by holding monthly GAs within their majors rather than by griping about the limited course offerings, unfair profs, and lack of student space. If GAs become a regular occurrence at the departmental, faculty, and university-wide levels, missing one won’t be a big deal. Moreover, GAs will be shorter and thus more accessible by not trying to handle the entire semester’s business in one go.

At the same time, for everyone to want to participate in assemblies they must be places where the loudest voices don’t dominate the conversation and shut out marginalized people. As we go into the upcoming SSMU GA and those of other clubs, services, and associations, let’s adopt anti-oppressive rules for our discussions and ask moderators to seek out the contributions of women and gender minorities, people of colour, first-year students, and those who simply haven’t spoken up as much. Those changes will do a million times more for the equity of our GAs than any online votes.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. You can email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.

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