After the Students’ Union elections at the beginning of this month, Roisin Guyett Nicholson questions the legitimacy of an election where only 10 per cent of the student body actually cast a vote.
As the year of five minute SHAG events and countless attempts to fundraise for the masses draws to a close, a new Students’ Union sabbatical team get ready to take their seats. Just as our celebrated TDs find it incredibly difficult to not argue constantly, unsuspecting students are dusting off their robes and heading for the dark and dreary SU corridor.
Over the summer, UCD will welcome new students to those highly sought after offices in the SU. Following the hard to miss elections earlier this month, a grand total of five new sabbatical officers have been elected with seven college officers also part of the executive. This is the body that represents most UCD students both with the university and nationally.
With a turnout of about 2800, these elections were fairly standard for UCD, though it is a large drop from last year which saw about 4,000 students cast their votes. However, the turnout was enough to reach quorum for the constitutional referendum.
Yet that is still only about 10 per cent of the student population in UCD – less still if you consider those studying abroad. By comparison, the general election saw about 60 per cent of the electorate turn out. The result of that election undoubtedly showed a lack of confidence in the previous government, yet what do the sabbatical elections enable students to show about their confidence in the SU?
The lack of engagement from year to year would certainly suggest that even less people care about the work of the SU. The lack of candidates and contested races also suggests that student interest is quite low, with only one of the sabbatical candidates having held no previous title within the union.
The elections this year have done little to disprove the argument that it is simply hacks who are invested in the state of the Union. Yet its avowed purpose is to represent students, though it is difficult to see how they can do this given that only 10 per cent of students voted at all.
Furthermore, that also means that no candidate even got 10 per cent of the population voting for them. For the uncontested races, the lowest re-open nominations (RON) vote was 15 per cent for Welfare, while the highest was 30 per cent for President. Of the students that care enough to vote, only 85 per cent decided Róisín O’Mara would be a good Welfare officer. While the overall turnout was enough to match a possible constitutional change, the RON vote means that this is reduced when you look at single candidates.
Looking at the Presidential “race” the gap widens even further. The highest RON vote of the elections goes to Conor Viscardi, the President elect. While the position of Welfare is often seen as one of the most important and visible, the position of President is undoubtedly vital. This is the person who represents students to the University and advocates for them nationally, particularly as UCD remains outside of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). Yet this role received the highest vote to re-open nominations.
A third of the students that voted did not want this Presidential candidate elected. Not only is the basic level of quorum not reached, in this case it simply does not come close. While there is generally an accepted amount of RON votes in every uncontested election, the difference between the highest and the lowest in these elections is vast.
This undermines the basic legitimacy of the uncontested positions. Barely 2,000 people voted for Viscardi, while the most any other uncontested candidate received was 2,382. Despite this, all of the candidates who stood unopposed were elected and are now set to represent the 26,000 students in UCD.
With only the Campaigns and Communications race seeing more than one candidate, most of the other candidates saw little need to run high profile campaigns. Postering of election posters was called off the day of hustings while some candidates did not see the need to poster extensively, if at all.
The effects of this can be seen in the low voter turnout. While many unopposed candidates were likely to be elected, there should still be some element of legitimacy to their election. It is difficult to see how somebody can represent the people if barely 10 per cent of the people even voted for them in the first place. By not running high profile campaigns, many of our new sabbatical officers will lack a strong form of legitimacy for their office. They represent the people that they can barely encourage to turn out and vote.