Commentary | Drive-thru democracy

Just a click away!

On February 27, 2013, SSMU General Assemblies (GAs) became time efficient. So long to the dreary days when we had to raise our hands, gaze around, judge whether or not there was a clear majority, and act accordingly. So long to the disappointing times when we couldn’t meet quorum because McGill is full of dedicated students who, as much as they would love to, can’t come out to vote on important issues. With the new implementation of ‘clickers’, McGill is on its path to a more accurate, efficient democracy!

Imposing the use of ‘clickers’ for decisions in the GA cunningly changes the voting method from an open to a secret ballot under the guise of “time efficiency.” Shocked that student politics had now been reduced to a thumb-twitch, we demanded further explanation. SSMU President Josh Redel graciously provided the board’s rationality: time efficiency. We pressed further on this limited statement, claiming that count is only necessary in case of an unclear majority. The president’s answer? “That’s inaccurate.”

Confused, I asked a friend – a Political Science undergrad, brilliant yet a member of the Conservative Party of Canada – to explain the inaccuracy. We learned that there are three costs in a democracy: participation costs due to attendance, information costs due to getting informed, and emotional costs due to anxieties regarding issues (essentially in seeing your school engaged). Apparently, the first two are inhibited with a technological fix, such as online voting. The third is inhibited by low attendance in an apathetic university. If time were truly the aim of the conversion, the issue remains whether or not a GA should aim at time efficiency instead of discourse.

In fact, there was one instance when the Arts faculty, at least, got engaged: last year’s GA on the student strike. This was oft-cited GA when students tried to explain the other rationale behind the clickers: peer pressure in the GA during the vote. After all of these statements in support of anonymity, it became apparent that secret ballots were the taken-for-granted ideal of a democratic model. Surprised at the lack of critical insight, we deplore this undemocratically chosen, questionable switch in the GA’s voting system. As issues can only be presented two weeks in advance, and GAs only occur once per semester, The Daily seems like the only viable medium to express this.

Is it surprising that, within a university that promotes the equivalence of education with GPAs, such a decision would be taken by SSMU Council and generally accepted by the student body? No. Is it surprising that this decision was imposed and questioning was dismissed by the SSMU Council? Frankly, yes. One would expect such a transformation in the framework of student politics to be treated as an issue. Instead, we were distributed clickers as if this were a fun new knick-knack for all of us to play corporate businessmen with. Here are some reasons why the switch from an open to a secret ballot is serious.

First, one is not accountable for their vote when it is anonymous. There is a difference between coercion and asking someone to articulate their decision. Those hiding behind the ‘peer pressure’ excuse seem to put both together.  Fortunately, many of us know that politics is also about discourse, participation in public life, and, importantly, is a form of education in itself. We just don’t believe in putting that into practice.

Arriving at the second point, the secret ballot reinforces a disengaged, apolitical culture. Student life isn’t only about writing an exam and checking Minerva profusely. Public life and political engagement forces students to not only be informed but learn to build proper arguments. Questioning opinions weeds out inconsistencies and misconceptions, forcing the student to think critically. Fear of being questioned should not be a reason to instate clickers but to do opposite! The pervasive culture of ‘objective’/apolitical stances at McGill only deepens with a secret ballot, teaching students that ‘all that matters is that you vote’, as if decisions have no ramifications beyond the final tally.

Third, we question the accuracy of the name ‘General Assembly’ with this switch. Open ballots and consequent debate (may) entice students not to vote purely as individuals but as member of a general population, who take into account what is best for everyone rather than themselves. With the new voting system, the GA becomes ‘individual drive-thru’, where the parts alone make up the whole.

And fourth, through both technology and council’s reading of the statistics post-vote, fraudulent activity becomes frighteningly easy. After this covert and unaccounted-for change in the voting system, it becomes difficult to trust those involved in monitoring the process.

A reductionist version of ‘democracy’ has been imposed on the student body. With a dysfunctional democracy already degraded to one GA per semester and a quorum of 100 students which isn’t always met, we question whether this technological fix will in fact get people more engaged through ‘time efficiency’ or if it will further weaken student democracy.

Morganne Blais-McPherson and Daria Khadir can be reached at morganne.blais-mcpherson@mail.mcgill.ca and daria.khadir@mail.mcgill.ca.


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