Unsigned: A reassessement of student participation in elections
The Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union elections have come and gone and we yet again feel the need to write about the abysmal rates of student participation.
This year, the percentage of voters dropped to 24.34 per cent, the lowest in the five years since the voting process was switched to an electronic system.
Here, we shall point out the common arguments concerning student participation, while also seeking to prescribe a remedy to this problem that we have so far been unable to elude.
The first — and perhaps most overplayed — argument is that students simply do not care about who becomes the Students’ Union president or who gets to represent them on the board of directors.
Regardless of how overplayed this argument might be, it happens to be a portion of the truth.
Perhaps this prevalent apathy can be attributed to the temporariness of the university experience: most students are only here for four to five years, and often feel their stay in university need not translate to political participation.
That is, they feel so content with, or indifferent about, their university experience with respect to the Students’ Union that they do not see at all the need to vote anybody into any position. Moreover, the students — altogether, they have the power to challenge and engage the Union — have no idea how or what to challenge.
They just do not know what the Union does, nor do they know — or care to know — why it is relevant. It does not help, especially regarding the last election’s turnout, that the current president has been perceivably distant and less noticeable, thereby widening further the gap between the Union and the students for whom they govern.
This issue becomes even more aggravating when we consider the rates of participation in other universities like Queens and McMaster, or perhaps even when we consider the participation rates in the SBESS elections. Unlike the Union, SBESS has in the last couple of years been able to engage its students in an almost mystical way. The SBESS’s smaller and intimate set-up (when compared to the Union) is not reason enough to explain its ability to engage its students in ways the Union cannot.
Perhaps, then, it can be said that the Union, regardless of its multi-million dollar budget, is not relevant enough to conjure widespread student participation because of the decentralization of services tailored towards students’ experiences. Each faculty has its own student body; the athletics department handles athletics, including intramural sports and other recreational programs and services; residential services primarily handles students in residence; the international office takes care of international students. And so on.
What exactly does the Union do? 76.66 per cent — the percentage of students who did not vote this year — either have no clue what the answer to this question is, or are indifferent to it.
The result is that a Union that claims to be “17,000 voices strong” can only manage to bring to its polls 4,000 of those 17,000. The point here is that without proactive and creative engagement of students, it is almost impossible for the remaining 76.66 per cent of students who did not vote this year, for example, to be coaxed into caring about the seemingly few responsibilities of the Union.
How can we reconcile theoretically an apathetic student body with an equally apathetic Students’ Union? It is important, of course, that the Union continues to try vehemently to win and retain students’ attention; likewise, it is important that students themselves meet the Union halfway by paying more attention to what it does and how it does it.
This process of reconciliation must begin during orientation week: the Union must take charge of explaining its services and its legitimacy as a corporation to first year students.