We Are the 21% | By Graeme Archibald

In the 2012 SU executive elections, voter turnout was 21.6%. Out of roughly 30,000 eligible student voters, only about 6,300 decided to vote. Although I did vote, I can understand why 79% of the University of Alberta student population decided that it had better things to do.

I’ve never been particularly engaged in student politics. Every year, I vote out of a sense of democratic duty – us Political Science majors really love to vote for things – but not because I’m particularly interested in the campaign. I do my due diligence of course, and research the candidates and their platforms, but in the end I just feel like I’m clicking a box on a website without much consequence.

I’ve attended the University of Alberta for four years, and have thus been under four different SU administrations. I could not tell you the difference between any one of them. Sure, we had dodgeball. The Undergraduate Research Symposium has been a great success. Outside of that, however, every year I’m still left asking myself the question what did the SU do this year?

This is not to disparage the work of the Students’ Union executive or the many students who work for the SU. These individuals put incredible time and effort into their positions, and sacrifice a lot to keep the SU running smoothly. There is a lot of good work going on behind the scenes, and unfortunately, for the most part, it goes on thanklessly. The stakes are just too low for the majority of students to put in the time to vote.

No matter how many candidates say that they are going to work hard to engage the campus community, the results will be minimal. Low voter turnout is a common symptom in democracies, and if we can only get 33.4% of Edmontonians to vote for their City Council, 57% of Albertans to vote for their provincial representatives, and 61% of Canadians to vote for their federal representatives, I’d say that 21% isn’t bad. In fact, it’s surprisingly good in comparison to elections with much higher stakes.

While I do hope that this year the candidates are able to engage the unversity population, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if turnout is any more than 2% above last year’s. With a number of races having no contests whatsoever, I wouldn’t be surprised if turnout fell, either.

In the end, there’s not really anything wrong with voter apathy. No one elected to an executive position is going to be disastrous for the university. Each of the candidates are dedicated and driven individuals who want what’s best for the students at the U of A. If only 20% of students decide that they want to vote, that’s okay. They put in the effort to consider multiple candidates, exercised their rights as students and selected the best candidate. The other 80% can rest easy knowing that their Students’ Union is in good hands, even if they don’t know who the hands belong to.

Graeme Archibald is a cynical fourth-year Political Science student who was most excited on his 18th birthday because he had the right to vote.

Creative Commons photograph courtesy of The League of Women’s Voters of California on Flickr.

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  • Moira Klepto

    Hi Graeme,

    While I certainly agree that there are those who don’t pay attention to SU politics without malice or a hatred of the administration, it still matters that there is a small minority who vote and take part in university politics. Students in governance are affected by vocal minority groups like any Provincial MLA is affected by lobby groups, but now that vocal minority group has a disproportionate influence. This is because they are seen as more legitimate by virtue of speaking up rather than because they represent a reasonable interest on campus. Besides the already-present bias towards organized groups and societies on campus, we are contributing to that distortion, contributing to a self-perpetuating bias that is reinforced every time we decide not to take an extra five minutes to pay attention to the community around us. It’s not an issue of whether you are unhappy with voter turnout; it’s an issue that we should be concerned and aren’t. Those in ‘power’ (however little influence they may have on the average student like you) are going to continue to be from groups or backgrounds that necessarily alienate others (such as Greeks) or represent an interest group that polarizes other campus societies (such as the Lister Hall Association).

    And when we students can’t be bothered at this age, we feed into a society whose obligations to their government (which at their most minimal, easy level are merely voting) are implied rather than actualized. Sure, it’s not feudal England and we don’t owe the King our lives when going to fight the French, but it seriously bothers me that my neighbors can’t even click a box. Worse is this idea that no one should expect them to do so, either. Our government takes more of our money to spend on services we need. We should be voting more. And on campus? Well, us ‘average students’ have to jump through some pretty extensive hoops if we even want to get a meeting with those in power. The administration, the bureaucracy, the politics–it may be boring, or necessary, but it has veritably diminished the power of the average person, alone and unfettered with university concerns, to ever vocalize those concerns should they arise. The option to influence change that is so vital and paramount to the realization of democracy is what’s being violated by everyone who doesn’t use it.

    It’s not okay that turnout on campus is this low. And we should be ashamed, not indifferent, that we can’t even pretend to care.