Problems within the Students’ Union elections
On Wednesday, January 23, Cecil VanBuskirk was elected as the incoming Students’ Union president with 741 votes. While VanBuskirk was all smiles cutting cake at the Inn after his victory, his election win may not be an accurate representation of what StFX students want, but rather a representation of the advantages to running for president in a flawed Students’ Union electoral system.
Elections for Students’ Union positions have been plagued over the last couple of years by a multitude of problems. Elections have suffered from low levels of engagement, inability to find candidates for positions like VP Academic, and flaws in the electronic voting system itself. As the Students’ Union presidential election results become official and elections for other representatives get underway, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate whether the Students’ Union elections are run in a way that ensures the best candidates are elected to some of the most important positions for representing students on campus.
While casting ballots electronically has its problems, such as making sure the Students’ Union elections are equitable, it is one of the few areas of success for the Students’ Union. By having an electronic voting system, they’ve avoided the costs that running a paper ballot system incurs, such as staffing polling booths. While paper ballots are feasible on such a small campus, the Students’ Union’s decision to stick to electronic ballots means that they don’t need to worry about the organizational capabilities they’d need to get students to physical ballot boxes.
However, the emails with links to the Students’ Union electronic voting site have been known to get filtered into spam folders and are easily buried under the numerous other emails students receive in one day from the university. Electronic voting systems can also be susceptible to hacking or electoral fraud, although the Students’ Union voting system claims that “voters who bypass authentication or have already voted are denied access to the ballot.” The Students’ Union should ensure that the way they email students voting links isn’t impeding participation in elections.
Another aspect of the Students’ Union electoral system that may be discouraging, or confusing students, is the ballot itself. The Students’ Union uses a ranked ballot system, except in the case of a single candidate running for a position, in which case students must vote yes or no instead. This means that if no candidate receives a majority during an election, the candidate with the least amount of first place votes will be eliminated, and those who voted for the least popular candidate will have their votes reallocated to their second-choice candidates, and so on until a candidate has a plurality. Given that most students are probably more familiar with first-past-the-post or simple majority ballots, it may be worth sending an explanation of how ranked ballots work during the election season, especially given that there has been confusion over the wording on the ballot instructions in the past.
The Students’ Union has extensive bylaws for when campaigns and nominations can open, but they have been a bit lax on them especially with the presidential election this year. The call for presidential nominations opened two days late, and since nomination deadlines were extended due to a lack of applicants, the candidates were announced three days after the beginning of when campaigning should have started. Any potential B.Ed. students who wished to run were also at a disadvantage, as their classes started several days after the deadline for nominations, impacting their ability to gather signatures needed for nomination forms. If the Students’ Union truly wants to attract the widest range of candidates and give them the best chance to engage with voters during campaigns, they should make sure they follow their own election bylaws or amend them to be fairer to all.
A big issue during the recent Students’ Union president election was slander and attack ads. Candidates in elections can discuss other candidates’ policies, but the election bylaws forbid slandering other slates or candidates. While no candidate should be personally attacked for their platform, candidates should be careful when making accusations of slander if the claims are verifiable and legitimate statements that they’ve made in debates or posts on their campaign page. Words matter enormously during elections, so it is best for candidates to make well-informed statements before other students, the Students’ Union, or the campus media hold you accountable for them.
Students are also barely engaged with Students’ Union elections, as is evident from the approximately 23% voter turnout for the Students’ Union president elections this year. While many students are aware of elections on campus, most simply don’t care enough to cast a vote until it’s someone they know or unless they already follow campus politics. If this trend continues, Students’ Union elections are likely to follow mainstream politics in which elections become a quasi-popularity contest, instead of having those in power actually represent, in this case, what is in the best interests of StFX students.
Some of the lack of involvement from students may stem from the fact that many don’t know what exactly the Students’ Union does, and how much their advocacy, or lack thereof, affects our everyday experience at StFX. The Students’ Union has taken the initiative to recruit volunteers and students at large to try to inform students about the election and the importance of elected Students’ Union representatives, but the tables they’ve set up are few and fairly easy for students to walk past. Perhaps investment in a website or providing a file to all voters that outline the duties of all Students’ Union positions along with a brief overview of all the candidates for specific positions during elections could remedy the issue and create a more informed campus.
No electoral system or election is perfect, and the Students’ Union elections are no exception. The Students’ Union should seriously contemplate how to increase student engagement in elections, make sure that their bylaws are inclusive, and make sure the electoral system is easy to understand and access. After all, having election results that reflect the interests of the majority are crucial when the Students’ Union is the primary organization advocating for students on issues with university administration, all levels of government, and other societies.