Covid-19 has shown us that in real-world politics making it easier to vote increases voter participation.
This is of course helped by culture wars driving demand to vote and intense messaging driving information (of varying quality). Last April, the 2020 Student Sabbatical elections were held online, which at least in theory, is a very easy way to vote. Turnout was very poor, however, somewhere around 1,200 total votes out of a potential electorate of 32,000. Turnout in Sabbatical Elections is never staggeringly high, but this represented something of a nadir in student voting participation.
This March 31st and April 1st the voting is again online, and I expect (but hope to be wrong) that voter participation is not going to be huge this year either. This is mostly due to no particularly divisive issues to vote on. However, you can help push up this number by immediately registering to vote at vote.ucdsu.ie/registration and voting on one of those days. Whilst on the website, try and familiarise yourself with the candidates that you will be voting on.
My suspicion is that many of the votes will be Johnny Nobody’s harassed mates badgered into voting for Johnny, also voting for candidates in other races about which they know very little. I suspect this because this is the situation I found myself in last year. My Johnny Nobody, having urged me to register previously, called me up on voting day to remind me to vote and so dutifully I went in to do so. But I was asked to vote on other candidates too, and I made some snap judgements, often based on the layout of their manifesto and their general presentation (A word of advice to the candidates, work hard on making sure that any information presented to a last-minute voter in this fashion is your absolute best self, and not some dodgy angled Snapchat of an over-detailed manifesto). This low information voting is not uncommon in SU elections with lots of effort around voting day being focussed on getting people who know little or nothing to vote for your candidate or your issue.
There is also something off about students who will no longer be in college voting for candidates in these elections, as they are voting for a choice that will not affect them. And of course, incoming students will not get to vote at all on these choices that could be very important for them. I have already highlighted how little many voters know about the candidates so there is little advantage to this situation. And let us not forget that students voted on increases in the Student Levy in 2019 for students in 2024 to face. That was an absolute failure of democracy and should never be allowed to happen again.
I think I have a partial solution to some of these problems. I think that at least some part of the Sabbatical Elections should be held in October, after the start of the college year.
First years do not yet know if they will ever need the Student Union and so may be more motivated to find out about it. They will also be less burdened with assignments and course matters and they will be paying more attention to everything in their new surroundings. This should a) increase participation, b) increase voter knowledge, the first year and each year going forward, and c) reduce the obvious democratic deficit.
Of course, I understand that an incoming sabbatical team will want the summer to organise, and that sabbatical officers will want to take a year off of their studies that handily fits into the standard academic calendar, and that change isn’t costless, this would likely require constitutional change and that can be difficult to organise. However, I would counter that it does not need to be the whole or even many of the sabbatical team and if the Student Union cannot find a sabbatical position that needs less preparation time, they could consider creating a new one.
Maybe you could get some of the advantages by just making more of the class rep elections, especially the first-year ones, but I think it would be better to have something more substantive, and better prepared than your average first-year class rep candidate to vote on. Maybe a part-time Sabbatical Officer position that has an express focus on first years and their problems. Maybe it’s an election that is only open to first-years to vote on. The idea is to introduce the first years to student politics as quickly and as cleanly as possible and to give them a significant voice as early in their college career as possible. First-year can be a very tough time and feeling like more of a stakeholder in the Students' Union may encourage a struggling student to seek help there.