It’s that time of year again. You open the doors and you see the canvassers, eyeing you up from a distance to decide whether you’re in the mood for a chat, or seem too grumpy to approach. I don’t envy the people who are trying to convince students hurrying to their lectures to vote for their friends. While a lot of campaigns are very well-run and effective, sometimes it seems like the Student’s Union elections are a popularity contest.
But how fair is this accusation? A lot of SU’s around the country do great work. They bring services to students, such as a free health clinic and mental health counselling here in NUIG. They raise awareness through various campaigns such as SHAG week for sexual health, RAG week for raising money for charity, and recently Equality week to promote equality across the board. So clearly, the people being elected are doing something with their time. I am not part of the SU and never have been, so I am not just saying this to make them look good!
However, I think many of us feel like the SU is really just another clique. Clique might be a bit harsh; perhaps a powerful and influential friendship group sounds better. It can be hard to get a normal student’s voice heard. While I am sure many members of the SU work tirelessly to raise the concerns of the people they are representing, sometimes it can feel like regular students just don’t really have a say in how the college is run. Even the structure of the SU is complicated; there are many officers, executors and conveners, and most students don’t understand why these positions exist. Many students in turn feel alienated from their own representatives, and the elections then descend into a question of which candidate is handing out free food, rather than what issues they aim to address if elected.
And some issues raised by candidates are so important. The question of repeat fees always resonates with students, as does promises of more microwaves and water coolers. But I think the elections are morphing into a popularity contest through the commercialisation of the campaigns. Canvassers are kitted out in t-shirts and hats with their candidate’s name on them. At the end of the day, is there really a need for all the advertising and the bribery (not that I am one to complain about free food)? Shouldn’t the focus of the elections be on the manifestos, plans of action, and promises the candidates are making? I can’t even remember most of the election promises last year, which should have been the things to stick out in my mind. All I can remember is getting free lollipops, burritos and stickers. And I voted! Coincidentally, all my candidates of choice won the positions they were contesting. But now I can’t even hold my representatives to their word.
I don’t think it is the candidate’s fault that the SU elections seem to be a popularity contest now. We need a serious change in the way the elections are run. The whole election process has been cheapened and diluted. Many students don’t even vote, which is a worrying trend with young people in any case. Thankfully, the USI campaign of registering students to vote led to 20,000 students being registered in time for the Marriage Equality Referendum. Young people’s voices were heard and hopefully the habit of voting will now stay with them.
You would think that for something that directly affects us, like a SU election, would have a high turnout, but most people see the voting process as “too much effort”. Or even worse, they are completely disillusioned with the SU altogether, and refuse to vote, therefore no changes will be made. I suppose it’s easy to stand back and point out the structural flaws with the SU. However, the only way we can change this is by electing candidates who run on a platform of change, not on how much free stuff they can give to passers-by.