Let’s talk about…Elections

IN THE UNLIKELY event that you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, there’s a General Election coming up on May 7th. Likewise, if you’ve stepped into the Students’ Union at any point in the last few days then you’ll have probably seen the bright new logo that signifies that Union elections are coming up soon.

Let's Talk AboutHowever, the fact remains that despite the wealth of advertising for both events, turnout from students will be low in both. At the 2010 General Election, only 51.8% of 18-24 year olds turned out and voted – the lowest of all age groups. This was a far better turnout than the 38.2% who voted in 2005, although the overall trend shows the sharpest decline in number of votes is very much the 18-24 category. A lower turnout at the 18-24 age group has a knock on effect when it comes to governments and the policy decisions that they make. Governments don’t produce far more legislation concerning pensioners for the hell of it, they do it because  they’re the age group that has highest voter turnout (74.7% in 2010). An article written by ASM Opinions Editor Ffion, to be published later in the week, argues that not voting is stupid. I agree.

However, encouraging young people to vote needs to be a process of consultation and experience, whereby we ask ourselves and others why young people aren’t voting in the first place. Is it the case that there is serious apathy and disillusionment with politics, or are politicians not talking about things that matter to young people? Arguably, it’s both and there needs to be change, but that change can only happen if young people engage with democracy and vote. The process is simple – if you are 16 or over you can register through the Government website, www.gov.uk/register-to-voteYou’ll need your National Insurance number, and the registration process takes around five minutes. It can also be done by post. Either way, get registered today. 

Now to elections slightly closer to home.

The Students’ Union elections take place on Thursday 26th February and the nomination process has already begun. For all the key dates, click on the following link.

The Union has set a rather optimistic turnout target of 30% this year, having achieved roughly 23% this time last year. The fact that this article says that 30% is rather optimistic is, in itself, rather indicative of a wider problem. A 30% turnout should not be celebrated – after all, it’s less than one third of the student population. At the same time, however, from a Students’ Union point of view, a 30% turnout would be great because it shows an increased level of student engagement with democracy/issues/campaigns etc (or any other term from the SU democracy starter pack).

While researching facts and figures for this article I came across an article published last week by NUS in which two members of staff from two Students’ Unions argued for and against incentivising SU elections. The full article can be found here, but the part I specifically want to focus on is the grouping of students together into 4 different categories.

Stephen Dowson, Student Led Change Manager at Leeds University Union argues that;

“There are four groups of students. Those who will vote regardless, because they always do. There are those who vote because they have been affected by or seen a change the SU has reached. Then there are those outside that sphere. Those who we haven’t connected by our work. Where is their benefit for helping us in our elections? Finally, the fourth group, what do we say to those who will never see the benefit the candidates are offering – the third year, the Masters student or the Erasmus student?”

There is no reason to believe that such groupings don’t exist here is Aber as well. Of the 2,068 votes cast here last year, a certain chunk are going to have been the people who vote because they feel it’s their duty to do so. They are mainly people who have had some kind of involvement with the Union before, be it as a sports or societies team member or getting involved with the running of the Union. Similarly, I’d imagine the membership of the second category is a reasonably small number of people. That isn’t to say that the SU doesn’t bring about any change, because it does and its staff run some fantastic campaigns. However, a more logical argument would be that an individual chooses to vote because they want to see certain parts of a candidate’s manifesto become reality at a later date, rather than voting as a response to an already created change (unless of course a person is running for re-election).

As with all elections, those who don’t normally vote are the people we need to be engaging with. There are roughly just over 10,000 students eligible to vote in the Students’ Union elections. The Activities Officer was elected with a winning margin of 10 votes last year. The 75-80% of students who aren’t voting could make a massive difference to the outcome of the election – they just need to be engaged with. However, incentivising voting isn’t the answer. As soon as you pretty much bribe somebody into voting, their vote becomes somewhat artificial. They aren’t voting for a person because they’ve sat down and read what the candidate actually wants to do if they’re elected, they’re voting because they’ve been bribed to do so. They don’t care who they vote for, they just need to tick a box. Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, however it’s certainly an idea that deserves further debate.

Another issue is the number and type of positions up for election. The five full-time Officer positions are pretty self-explanatory and Aber-focused. However, positions such as ‘NUS delegate’ hidden at the bottom of the page are not. There are at least two degrees of separation between you voting in an SU election and the election of the next President, VP Welfare etc of the NUS, so arguably, greater explanation of the role the NUS plays is possibly needed. Although, as they’re not accountable to their individual members, perhaps people should focus on positions closer to home instead.

If there is one message you should take away from this, then it is the following; engage with elections, talk about the issues that matter to you, voice your opinions, get involved and, most importantly, vote.