Although the SU is keen to remind us that the voter turnout at SU elections is among the highest of UK universities, George Wright recalls that the last SU election involved a little over 7,000 votes, accounting for less than 25% of the student population. Such a dearth of popular participation in student politics is dismal; to put it into context, the lowest turnout recorded at a UK parliamentary election since 1945 is 59%. However, as Wright is quick to point out, engagement in student politics is expressed not only through voting but also in the membership of the University’s numerous societies – a right enjoyed by a far healthier quota of 12,000 students.
This by no means renders the poor election turnout insignificant and the SU recognises this. To this end, the forthcoming election will be the first to involve the presence of Voting Ambassadors – a successor to the Polling Clerks of yesteryear. Although Wright concedes that most students cast their votes in their rooms in Halls or in their houses, he is still mandated by Council to make provisions for polling stations across campus. It is at these locations (George Green Library, Hallward Library, Portland Building, QMC, Jubilee Campus and Sutton Bonnington Campus) that these new Ambassadors will be found.
Their job description requires them to approach “passers-by to convince them to vote in an impartial way”, using the incentive of sweets to lure people in. The impetus for the change in job title was Wright’s desire to develop a role that involves “more than just sitting behind a table”. In attributing the position with more prestige, he hoped to encourage a greater number of applicants but also to genuinely encourage the Ambassadors to adopt a more proactive approach to engaging with students. The goal of increasing applications has proven successful, with 170 students registering an interest in the ambassadorial job – more than the number nominated for the actual positions being contested in the election. The success of the second and certainly more important aspiration of increasing voter turnout is yet to be seen, with Wright himself admitting that “the proof is in the pudding”. He would not be drawn, however, on the anticipated turnout figures for this election.
At a total cost to the SU of less than £1,500, it seems hard to question the value for money offered by these Ambassadors. The education and mobilisation of the electorate are two of the fundamental principles that lie at the heart of any democratic system. On closer examination, the role of Voting Ambassador is far from the innocuous position that it first appears. Given that occupants of this job will be among those with the most contact with potential voters once voting opens on Friday, it is alarming that the SU is not implementing any official form of monitoring device to ensure their impartiality whilst on duty. When presented with this issue, Wright seemed confident that the rigorous application process for the role would eliminate any applicants with ulterior motives. As such, although he “doesn’t foresee it as a problem”, when pressed as to whether he had considered the potential for this influential role to be abused, he confessed that he is reliant on students reporting any transgressions.
The fact remains that by the time an issue is brought to the attention of the relevant authorities, the damage may well have been done. Only time will tell if George Wright’s conviction is well founded – the integrity of our democracy depends on it.