Why Aren’t Students Voting? Impact Questions SU Communications Officer

One of the main issues that came out of the recent SU council meeting was the poor turnout at the last Students’ Union Election. Only 5,610 students (16.5%) out of 35,000 students voted. Impact talked to Luke Mitchell, Democracy and Communications Officer, about the issue.

Turnout at the election was a record low. No Students’ Union election at Nottingham has had such a poor turnout since 2005. The elections are held every year, with positions open for both Representative Officers and SU Executive Officers. These Officers are the only representatives that students have within the University, and as such they occupy positions of significant responsibility.

As Democracy and Communications Officer, Luke Mitchell has been elected into a position that must deal directly with this problem of student apathy. However, he said that low turnout was only part of the “big picture”.

Mitchell predictably sees a high turnout as necessary to ensure that the “issues that students are facing are going to be pushed higher up the agenda.” This is unlikely when apathy as it an all time high.

Some have placed the blame with the Union itself. The link between the students and their union is alleged to be down to a lack of publicity about the elections. But Mitchell says that more leafleting during elections would be a “red herring”.

Mitchell argues that it is largely a structural problem preventing candidates from engaging with students. The amount of rules and regulations leads to negative campaigning by some candidates who “spend their time writing up grievances about rules other candidates have broken rather than spending their time engaging with students”.

These rules can sometimes tie candidates’ hands behind their back when they try to engage with students. There is, for example, a rule which states that candidates cannot knock on students’ doors to tell them about their policies. Mitchell seeks to overcome this issue by replacing a list of rules with a statement about candidate conduct. Unless there is a thorough reassessment of these rules however, it is unlikely that candidates will be able to escape from this inherent structural and bureaucratic obstacle.

The gap between when the SU nominations finish and when campaigning for SU elections begin is another part of the structure Mitchell sees as getting in the way. He believes that there is not enough time for the candidates to prepare their campaigns and in the past this has lead to some candidates dropping out of the election.

But this is something that was in fact addressed by last year’s Exec. President at the time, ‘Corky’, commented that the turnout was “not connected to the shorter campaigning time…because it was shorter this year, we are expecting a big jump next year, which is going to look good on next year’s Exec.” Luke’s comments on the campaign time would suggest that he is slightly more cautious than this optimistic prediction.

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive changes that Mitchell wants to bring about is a change in the relationship between Student Run Services (such as Impact, URN and NUTs) and the Students’ Union during the election period. He commented that in the past there had been tight restrictions on these services that were both detrimental to the SRSs themselves and to the student electorate. He said that in the past Impact and other services have been restricted to what they can ask SU candidates and the extent to which they can criticise the policies of those running in the election.

Due to regulations regarding impartiality, Impact had been unable to ask last year’s joke candidate ‘Dexter’ why he was dressed as a murderer. Mitchell stressed the importance of allowing media groups the freedom to question SU candidates’ policies and to hold candidates to account if they make mistakes and don’t act on promises that they have made during their campaigns.

One of the most important roles of student media is to be able to hold the SU and the University to account. Part of that is being able to offer students a critical perspective on those candidates wishing to represent the student body. If Mitchell is able to make this change it would see a complete rehaul of student media. This would not only encourage students to think critically about University democracy, it would also help the SRSs themselves develop the techniques used by national media outlets.

The SU council passed Mitchell’s motion for a change to the rules in SU elections unanimously. Clearly, if the SU wants to be representative of the student voice, it needs to be as open as possible. SU candidates need to engage with students not just at election time but throughout their time on Council. For this to be possible media SRSs need to have the freedom to question candidates and make sure they are listening to the needs of students they were elected to represent.

Eddie Haynes

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8 Comments on this post.
  • Confused
    24 October 2012 at 22:17
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    What is an SRS?

  • Eddie Haynes
    25 October 2012 at 08:57
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    It a student run service it says it in the article third paragraph from the bottom

  • Confused
    25 October 2012 at 19:23
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    But what exactly is a Student Run Service?

  • Eddie Haynes
    25 October 2012 at 20:12
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    its any service that is run entirely by students such as impact, every part of impact is run by students. Student run services are funded by the students union, who also act as regulators. When you get down to the nitty gritty of how their run it can get a bit confusing, there was lots of discussion about this at the SU council meeting I think Hannah who was at the SU meeting with me has written an article about this.

    hope this helps 🙂

  • egg
    29 October 2012 at 20:26
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    Having run in or been on Elections Committee for the main SU Elections 2009, 2010 and 2011 (and been on Exec and helped out/watched 2012) and the fact that I’m me, means I have comments on this.

    1) You’re using the old SU logo for the picture of this article?!

    2) Elections are held for Exec and ‘Representational’ Officers, not Representative. They’re now actually called Equality and Diversity Officers though.

    3) Saying that Exec and Equality & Diversity Officers are the only representatives that students have within the University is misleading. The main influence students can have within the University and on their course is through their Course Reps. There are around 1000 of these.

    4) What does this even mean: “Mitchell predictably sees a high turnout as necessary to ensure that the “issues that students are facing are going to be pushed higher up the agenda.””? Are you implying that elected Officers are not able to successfully work on issues of high importance to students unless there is a high turnout? How does a high turnout push issues up the agenda? Whose agenda?

    5) Having put in more than a couple of grievances over the years, I can honestly say that it takes about a minute… so definitely not stopping candidates engaging with students. It’s entirely possible to do both and a nonsense to suggest otherwise.

    6) Don’t know about you… but do you really WANT to have your door knocked on for someone you don’t know to talk about their policies… repeatedly… for 10 – 14 days every March…?

    7) Not everyone sees the strict rules as an ‘inherent structural and bureaucratic obstacle’. Whilst some rules have definitely evolved over time and should be reviewed, others ensure unwanted harassment and disruption of students during election time is kept to a minimum.

    8) Publicity for elections did not start until a couple of weeks before elections this year due to faffing with the Big Ask results and trying to change the Exec structure/positions. In previous years publicity has gone out before Christmas, giving potential candidates plenty of time to properly consider if they want to run and allowing them to talk to students and carefully create their manifesto. Furthermore, in the past there was about 7 – 10 days between the close of nominations and the submission of manifestos, allowing candidates to attend a very helpful candidate training session which covered things from ‘how to write a good manifesto’ to campaigning tips. This was invaluable to less confident candidates (and before you say ‘We need confident Exec!’, I ran for Women’s Officer in my first year and it was the scariest thing I’d ever done). So it’s not just about not enough time to prepare their campaign, but also not enough time to prepare their manifesto (which I think should be central to our election process).

    9) Um, isn’t it Union Council which holds Officers to account, not the media SRSs? I think if we allow SRSs to traul through candidates history and write critically about them then it will have a detrimental effect on the number of students wishing to run. I was victim of an anonymous blog made about me during election time detailing an overheard conversation of mine on the bus, questioning my feminism because I was talking about cake I’d made and calling me a ‘daddy’s girl’ (even though I was actually on the phone to my mum). It was extremely unsettling and upsetting at the time, and that blog was reported on Impact. I’m fairly reliably told that the blog was created by someone within Impact. I don’t want anyone else to ever have to go through that, especially not during election time. Perhaps this isn’t the sort of thing intended with the changes… but I’m understandably nervous.

    10) “SU candidates need to engage with students not just at election time but throughout their time on Council.” – What does this mean? Do you mean elected Officers? They stop being candidates once they’ve been elected. There’s also a lot more to being an Officer than being on Council. Council isn’t a great place to engage with students at all.

    11) And again, this makes no sense: “For this to be possible media SRSs need to have the freedom to question candidates and make sure they are listening to the needs of students they were elected to represent.” Yes, they should be allowed to question candidates. But then the second half of the sentence implies you’re talking about elected Officers… but you’ve completely merged the two?

    12) What’s the article about? Why election turnout was low or how media SRSs should be allowed to question candidates and write about them how they want (and then apparently hold them to account after they’re elected)? They’re pretty different issues in my opinion…

    I find it odd that you don’t mention anywhere in the article how few candidates there were this year or how many dropped out (a very high number). Quite a few positions were completely uncontested. Less motivation for candidates to campaign and less motivation for students to bother voting. That’s probably the real reason voting was so low? *Why* there were so few candidates is an entirely different question though… and my thoughts on which make up a rambling essay I will save for another time!

  • Ex officer
    29 October 2012 at 23:13
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    I hope what I’m reading here is not what I think it is. Neutality of student media is vital. If you change that even slightly, it will give advantage to those candidates that are ‘in’ with the media SRSes. Lets say I run for president and my housemate happens to be impact ed in chief. Can we expect total neutrality? No.

    And if anyone thinks that the problem with apathy is caused by the campaigning, then… *forehead smack*

  • Dave J
    30 October 2012 at 10:01
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    And by contrast, I’ve seen candidates elected despite the relevant current officers lambasting their policies as nonsense and completely unrealistic. In these cases, Impact has been unable to report this on the grounds of neutrality, in my view skewing the elections. And not in a good way.

    The Impact Ed-Chief typically has no involvement whatsoever in its election coverage – and even if s/he does, they report to the news editors. There is no track record whatsoever for Impact being biased in anybody’s favour during elections. If anything, the biggest criticism of Impact’s election coverage to this point has been that it is too unbiased – reprinting but not challenging candidates claims anywhere near enough.

    So no, if you were standing for a position and were friends with the Ed-Chief, they may very well turn out for your campaign team, but they certainly wouldn’t have a chance of influencing Impact’s content in your favour.

  • Rob T
    30 October 2012 at 15:17
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    I am with Dave on this. It is absurd that every year candidates run with manifestos full of completely unachievable things and no one can pick them up on it.

    I also know candidates that have successfully used this strategically over the past few years. They have said things on their manifestos, that they know will never happen and have no interest in pursuing, but are guaranteed them the votes of the ‘uninformed’ students who are not really aware of the remit of exec officers etc. Allowing media SRS’s to publicly analyse and critique the policies and campaign strategy of candidates is one way to help remove this completely ridiculous aspect of SU elections.

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