Friday, February 8, 2008

Referendum Clarity

Clear working of a referendum question is a required in order to achieve a result that validly reflects the wishes of voters. Students are paying extraordinary fees these days -- questions asking for more money must be carefully considered. When I was a member of the executive of the Graduate Students' Union at University of Toronto we had a policy that the wording of any potential referendum question had to be approved by the general assembly of the Union. This vetting process resulted in subtle but clarifying changes to the question wording so that the referendum could be considered fair and valid. Clarity on referendum questions and outcomes is actually legislated in Canada (the controversial "Clarity Act") but student organizations needn't be held to such high standards. I do, however, think they should at least have grammatically correct questions!

There is currently a referendum and election underway at the University of Calgary Student's Union. Upon looking into some policy, it seems they union here has an even clearer procedure and policy about how to approve referendum questions. In a nutshell, 5% of the student body has to sign a petition supporting the referendum. The petition must contain the wording of the full question to be put to students, and the final question is then approved by the Student Legislative Council through a process of 2 readings. Referendums about fees have to meet three additional criteria:

i) information on the purpose of the fee;
ii) the university sessions for which the fee applies; and
iii) the level of the assessment of the fee in all faculties,
programs, and sessions in which the fee level is different.

Also, "If the SLC decides the wording of a referendum or plebiscite
included in a petition is unclear or potentially in violation of the
Constitution, bylaws or Procedures of The Students’ Union, the SLC may, by SLC resolution, refer the question to the Review Board for clarification, grammatical correction of the wording or form, or a ruling on the validity of the question" (SLC Election By-law).

So, then I have to ask what the SLC was thinking when they didn't send this question for review and grammar correction:

"Do you support an increase of $1.00 for each full-time and part-time students, in all faculties, per session (fall/winter/spring/summer) for the continued growth, maintenance, and operations of NUTV, a non-profit society."

Yes, it says "for each full-time and part-time students" and ends with a period. The session information is separated by a clause from the dollar amount, muddying the readability. NUTV is not defined other than as a "non-profit society." Some question!

Compare it to another question from the same referendum:

"The Gauntlet is the independent student newspaper of the University of Calgary. Currently, Gauntlet fees are $3.50 per session for full-time students and $1.75 per session for part-time students. Do you support an increase in the Gauntlet fee of $1.00 per session for full-time students and $1.00 per session for part-time students?"

I guess I should expect better writing from a newspaper than a tv station. This question provides context (current fees) where the other one doesn't. This provides more of an ability for voters to judge the value they are getting for the current fee. In order for student governments to be well-respected organizations, I think they need to take issues like referendum validity seriously. The SU of U of C seems to have not followed it's own by-laws in not correcting the NUTV question. They should also add a fourth clause to referendum questions regarding fees: (iv) current levels of the fee, if any.

Well, I'm not an undergraduate, or a U of C student, so it's really none of my business. I guess I'm a political junkie and I miss being involved in student governance. Or, I just need to get a life.

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