Students say they ‘need incentive to vote’

Team RHM was elected in February 2005 with 35.9 per cent voter turn out.
Team RHM was elected in February 2005 with 35.9 per cent voter turn out.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

With AMS executive elections taking place today and tomorrow, the relationship between students and their student government representatives has never been more relevant. Queen’s has a higher voter turnout for student elections than most Canadian universities, with a near-record turnout of 35.9 per cent last year—more than double that of schools such as the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia. However, when the participation of one-third of students is deemed a success, is it fair to say that students really care about their student government? Elections Canada estimates the turnout for voters between the ages of 18 and 21 in the 2004 federal election was 38 per cent, which puts Queen’s student participation in student government elections on par with young Canadians across the country.

In an interview conducted last year by University of Ottawa student newspaper, The Fulcrum, professor François-Pierre Gingras said he felt that on many campuses, students don’t believe that student associations matter.

“They don’t see what difference student associations make, and they don’t see how they are affected by policies adopted by student bodies,” he said. “Because they don’t know much about candidates, [they] therefore can’t really ‘entrust’ them.”

Chanakya Sethi, editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian, told the Journal he feels that participation in elections is a clear priority for the student body at Princeton University, New Jersey. Sethi approximated a 55 to 65 per cent turnout for student government elections, but was quick to stress that universities such as Princeton have a governing structure very different from Queen’s.

“The endorsement of private donations creates an understanding that students have to give back to the school,” he said, referring to the reciprocal relationship between alumni and the university. Other factors that might contribute to student interest in Princeton elections include the school’s strong sense of community, and the prominent role the student government plays in issues that generate discussion and debate, such as the university’s stance on gay marriage in New Jersey.

Leah Dacks, ArtSci ’08, said she thinks most Queen’s students just don’t care about student government.

“They’re entirely focused on school as a means to an end, and don’t have the time to research candidates,” she said. Both Dacks and Elanna Finestone, ArtSci ’08, said they believe a fundamental lack of communication on the part of the student government means student representatives haven’t been able to establish a level of relevance that would encourage students to take the time to educate themselves and vote intelligently. “The lack of information about the [student] government’s progress gives me no concept of what they’re actually doing,” Finestone said. “I want to see simple signs of progress.” Ian Matthews, ArtSci ’06, said it wasn’t the lack of information about the current government or upcoming elections, but rather its availability that keeps voter turnout low.

“Students need incentive to vote,” he said. “There’s not enough effort made to encourage students to read annual reports or minutes.” The inaccessibility of information is a concern that is echoed on other Canadian campuses. Students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Dalhousie University cite similar problems encouraging students to vote, and share sub-20 per cent voter turnouts at student elections. Paul Evans, news editor for UBC’s newspaper, The Ubyssey, said 10 to 12 per cent of students vote in UBC student government elections. “It’s sort of cliquey, I suppose. There are about 2,000 [of 40,000] students that actually follow student politics and give any sort of a damn, and then the other half of the voters are friends of candidates or were just told to and vote blindly.” Ian McKenchnie, the UBC elections administrator, echoed Evans’ statement, citing undefined candidates and platforms as the main culprits in the low participation.

Chris LaRoche, a Queen’s alumnus and editor-in-chief of the Dalhousie Gazette, has been heavily involved in campus issues over the past three years. He said he believes that apathy towards student government is symptomatic of the campus’ urban setting and compartmentalized student body.

“I might go as far to say that Dalhousie is one of the most dramatically decentralized, apathy-laden schools in Canada—probably along with U of T,” he said. “I would wager Dalhousie has hundreds, if not thousands, of students who have no idea what ‘DSU’ [Dalhousie Student Union] stands for.” In contrast, DSU President Ezra Edelstein said he believes the 17 per cent voter turnout in the 2004-05 election—down six per cent from the previous year—is not because students are apathetic. “The only reason students lack interest in the DSU—and thus don’t vote—is because of a feeling that they have no say or influence into what the DSU [does].” The problem of students questioning the value of their vote is also asked at Queen’s. Students such as Gillian Haker, ArtSci ’07, said she doesn’t believe her vote will have any effect on whether the student government will accomplish anything.

“I don’t see change, so I don’t believe it’s going to happen,” she said.

AMS President Ethan Rabidoux said he feels the problem of low voter turnout is perennial. “We’re caught in a trend of students being less communitarian and more individualistic, and this dynamic makes it difficult for the AMS to be relevant to each student,” he said. Rabidoux pointed to services such as Walkhome and Bus-It as examples of AMS services that aren’t widely attributed to the student government.

He said he sees two significant obstacles to expanding the exposure of the AMS: the increased size of campus, which he feels stifles the sense of community, and the fact that students have access to many more options individually. “Fifteen years ago, the football stadium was packed,” he said. “Now, students can watch the game at home while browsing the Internet and checking MSN.”

Students want stability, he added.

“They want a student government to set boundaries, not regulate play—to be a moderator, not a legislator—so the challenge for the AMS is to show students they use AMS services on a daily basis.” Rabidoux said that returning student government to the position of relevance is no easy task. Student government representatives from other universities agree. Valerie Kitchell, the student representative on the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors, said that an increase in the quality and availability of information about student government initiatives would have a positive impact on Ottawa’s voter turnout. During their last student government election, 10.6 per cent of the student body voted, up from approximately seven per cent the previous year. LaRoche said he feels the Dalhousie student body would be more inclined to vote in the presence of tangible changes around campus that are clearly credited to the student government.

At UBC, a new editorially autonomous campus-wide newspaper has been proposed, which would specifically focus on student issues and the student government, to bolster interest.

It is the Princetonian, more than any student government figure, however, that may have created the most pro-active solution.

Every year at election time, the paper creates an independent editorial board, not otherwise associated with the publication, that challenges candidates to defend their platforms. Based on these thorough, critical interviews, this interim editorial board makes a case for which candidates the subscribers should support. The significance of a nuanced, critical assessment of platforms cannot be underestimated, Sethi said.

“More often than not, the candidate we support wins.”

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