The recent elections demonstrated StFX’s low democratic engagement
Ask any serious observer of democracy what the biggest challenge ahead is and they’ll likely say turnout. People just aren’t showing up for elections in the numbers they used to. This leaves the people of a country badly-represented. More importantly, low voter turnout is a problem because if less than half of the population votes, then the majority of people are basically casting a silent ballot showing their lack of confidence in the system. People often get worried when turnout dips below 50% for this reason. What does it tell us when voter turnout at StFX rarely goes above 20%?
The recent election for the arts and first year representatives was a clear example of this. In the election for the arts rep, for example, less than 200 people actually voted. The turnout for the first year rep election was similar. This is hardly unique, given that last year the turnout campus-wide for the general election was around 15%. People might not realize, but the positions and choices made are deeply important to the campus, and the fact that people aren’t getting involved is a bad sign. Voter turnout among young people is already really low and this presents a serious problem for all democracies. If their first exposure to voting is through student elections, who can blame them though? The electoral process is deeply uninspiring, and several key faults manifested in this particular round.
First and foremost, the election was much too short. Only four days were given for campaigning, giving people little notice about the upcoming event and little time to share platforms. There was also little done to actually publicize the election, without even an email being sent out. Some students didn’t even know they counted as Arts students and therefore didn’t know that they could vote. The areas where the Student Union did put out voting booths – Morrison Hall and the Students’ Union Building – are certainly important areas, but lots of students simply don’t travel through there. The new system of ranked ballots – which is an excellent idea – unfortunately wasn’t explained very well, and those unfamiliar with the system might have found it a bit daunting. Candidates also weren’t given a forum to introduce themselves or their policies to the voters, so the admirable effort put in by some candidates was invisible and the process came down to a popularity contest. Overall, the election was something of a mess, which shows that the Students’ Union has serious ground to make up if it wants to be known as an institution that takes democracy seriously.
There are plenty of relatively simple fixes for the process that could get people turning out and voting. For one, the actual act of voting needs to be easier. If in this particular case the online access was confusing, and some students don’t consistently check their StFX emails, then mass emails alone are not enough. Morrison Hall and the SUB also don’t cover enough ground. Voting needs to be promoted in residences, where the Students’ Union can take advantage of the large numbers of people. Election dates need to be publicized far in advance so that people know they’re coming and so that candidates have more time to meet people. Space also needs to be made for candidates to visit different residences and deliver their pitches. The stump speech is one of the oldest and most honourable traditions of democracy, and candidates should be given the opportunity to deliver them and show their ideas across campus. The voting stations are generally a good idea, but there needs to be access to them in residences – possibly in the lobbies – because that’s the one place you can be sure plenty of people are going to be. The process for getting posters approved should be faster, because as it stands, it usually takes a couple days and in such short campaigns this gives people little time to look up candidates and figure out their platforms. People are also often unfamiliar with what the positions they’re voting for actually are and what the Students’ Union does, so perhaps during O-Week it would be a good idea for students to be able to meet SU leadership and find out what it’s all about. This is barely scratching the surface, but all of these would be relatively simple and cheap fixes to coordinate with various parties. The Students’ Union is eminently capable of stepping up to the plate.
StFX has an odd campus culture where people seem to know very little about their Students’ Union and treat it as just another part of the university bureaucracy. It’s there to handle services like O-Week, taxis for drunks, and vending machines, among endless others. So long as it does this, plenty of people don’t seem to care much. To a certain extent, this is fine – the excesses one hears about from U of T’s bitter campus wars leave a bad taste in the mouth. However, university isn’t just a place to pick up academic knowledge. It’s the place where we, as students, get ready to move out into the real world and deal with real society. As citizens of a liberal democracy, voting is a central responsibility. Most political scientists say it’s actually the very barest minimum, and that voting alone is insufficient. It’s the duty of the Students’ Union to prepare us for democracy and create a culture of active engagement, and if it can’t even get people out to vote then perhaps its priorities need to be revisited. It must make common-sense reforms, renew its efforts towards openness and participation, and ensure that all StFX students – not only the hyper-engaged – are represented fairly.