If you have been at St Andrews for any longer than a year, chances are you will have encountered the proceedings of the Students’ Association elections. When the election period rolls around you probably find that within a short space of time you have been updated with nominations, been the subject of campaigning, voted, or you may have even run for a position. No matter how much you participate, it is a busy two weeks that impacts us all but especially those running the show, the Elections Committee. One might assume that all of the events, administrative tasks and regulation involved in running the elections magically pulls itself together, but in actual fact there is a 21-strong committee team putting in the hours to ensure we can successfully and fairly elect our student representatives in the most efficient and fair way possible.
The Saint sat down with Flora Smith, Director of Wellbeing and Senior Elections Officer, and Markus Lee, Deputy Senior Elections Officer, to discuss what goes on behind the scenes of St Andrews’ Students’ Association elections.
With the responsibility falling under her role as Director of Wellbeing, Ms Smith heads the election committee and oversees that the elections run fairly and smoothly. Mr Lee organises the volunteer schedule as well as dealing with disciplinary issues and making sure that nobody breaks campaigning rules.
“On the elections committee we are required to have certain groups of students. There are three people nominated from the SRC, three people co-opted by the SSC and then we have two senior academic representatives, one from the science and medicine faculty and one from the arts and divinity faculty. Then any of the sabbatical officers who aren’t running will be involved. We need someone from an executive position on a sub-committee and then at least one first year and one post-graduate. There is an AU representative and four other students. There are a range of people represented,” explained Ms Smith.
Mr Lee added, “All of the positions are different in their nature. We make sure there are different voices heard and that people on the committee have had experience running campaigns so they are aware of what people running campaigns are going through.”
When asked what the day-to-day running of the elections consists of, Mr Lee and Ms Smith commented on the large portion of unseen work that committee members and volunteers do during the election cycle.
“A lot of people never see what’s behind the scenes, but volunteers will be putting in over three hundred hours within the two weeks that elections are running. The committee does so much hard work and it’s great to see everyone so engaged in it and really caring about their roles.
“For nominations week it’s a lot of processing nominations and contacting candidates to make sure they’re well informed about all the commitments they have to fulfill across the next week. As we get into the actual elections, a lot of the work is essentially upholding the rules of the elections to make sure it’s fair.
“We have daily meetings for rule clarifications but we also make sure we are a resource to candidates. We’ll be up in the elections office from 10am until 5pm every weekday of the elections cycle for candidates who want to ask us any questions. We understand that putting yourself forward for an election is a stressful process. Markus and I are both fully aware as we’ve both done it before so we want to make sure that candidates are happy.”
A large proportion of the election committee’s work is making sure that candidates don’t break any rules when they are campaigning. Candidates are allowed to campaign outside of academic buildings such as the library and the Union, but are prohibited from entering the buildings. This rule is partly set in place to ensure that candidates aren’t being a nuisance to other students and that academic activities aren’t disrupted, according to Mr Lee. Ms Smith also outlined the importance of candidates campaigning in a positive manner. Candidates are also not allowed to campaign in social media groups formed prior to the election so that any member of that group who doesn’t wish to see election propaganda doesn’t have to.
Ms Smith commented on the issue of anonymous pages such as St Andrews Crushes in terms of the elections. “It’s explicitly against the rules to send in a post to those anonymous pages [about a candidate] but that is somewhat harder to control. We’ve been pretty successful so far, however. We’re trying to avoid people publishing posts about candidates because anonymous pages can fuel negative comments and we don’t want one of our candidates to feel personally attacked when we can’t do anything about it because we don’t know who has published it.”
Ms Smith and Mr Lee placed emphasis on the fact that the implementation of the rules mean that any students who don’t want to participate in the elections don’t have to. When asked to elaborate on their focus on this issue, Ms Smith said “Obviously it’s important to engage in the elections but not every student is going to want to and we shouldn’t have to be a nuisance to them. It’s their personal choice, as with any other democratic process.”
When asked why they both wanted to be a part of the committee, Mr Lee mentioned that “Elections are a privilege in that you get to elect your own representatives when others don’t have the opportunity to do that. I wanted to join to make sure that privilege is not disrupted and it is fair. Anyone who participates needs to know that the elections are fair and that no one broke any rules to get into their elected position.”
Ms Smith emphasised her hope in using her role to make the elections kinder this year, increasing the amount of support available to candidates through pre-election skills workshops and de-stressing events. “Two weeks ago, we ran an election skills day with CAPOD where candidates came to learn about writing manifestos, communicating ideas, public speaking and dealing with difficult questions. The elections office is always open and available as a resource. I’m pretty much always there and I’m a trained listener so I can provide support and signpost you on to other services. We’re having a doggy de-stress event for candidates during the week as well to make sure they are supported and having a lunch for sabbatical candidates to make sure they are okay.”
The process of running in an election alone can be stressful, but Ms Smith draws attention to the struggle unsuccessful candidates may face when it all comes to an end. “Having personally run twice and having lost the first time, I know what it’s like to put yourself out there so much and to then suddenly just be dropped. After previous elections, candidates haven’t necessarily been contacted afterwards, firstly to say thank you and secondly to let them know that other opportunities are available to them and if they need support there is that available to them as well. I’m going to make sure that every candidate who ran and lost the position is contacted afterwards. Not only so they feel appreciated, because we really appreciate the fact that people put themselves forward because it’s a scary thing to do and the Association benefits from them doing so. We understand the aftermath isn’t always easy.”
The pair were asked about any difficulty they face within their role on the committee, whether that be with candidates or students voting. A stressful and full-on two weeks, Mr Lee and Ms Smith both noted some of the issues they deal with when organising the event.
“Sometimes there are issues with people sort of breaking rules but not exactly breaking them,” remarked Mr Lee.
“Everyone has their own opinion. When I formed the committee I wanted to make sure there was a broad range of individuals as possible. People obviously have different opinions and finding that middle ground is personally something I enjoy doing, but it can also be quite challenging,” claimed Ms Smith. She also commented on the somewhat intimidating sense of responsibility she feels as a result of her senior position. “If something was to go wrong and the elections weren’t to go ahead, not only would that mean we wouldn’t have student representatives, the University wouldn’t have access to student representatives to sit on their committees and would consequently lose funding. Being aware of that much of a larger impact and the importance of representation gets a bit intimidating sometimes. I’ve had a couple of moments where I’ve thought ‘what if this all goes wrong?’”
Since 2014, turnout for the Student Union elections had dropped by 16% and only 32.5% of students voted in 2019. In a recent poll published on The Saint’s Facebook page, 70% of voters claimed that they would be casting a vote in the elections this year. When asked what they thought the reason for decreasing turnout was, Ms Smith blamed lack of information. “I think a lot of students have no idea what student representatives do and I think in many ways, that’s quite sad because we do so much for the student body. I think that across this year the sabbaticals have tried to be quite open about what we do. I think you can especially see that in Jamie Rodney, he’s very public about his work. I’m hopeful this will increase turnout in some way because people have already gained some further understanding.”
Considering these dropping figures, Ms Smith elaborated on the importance of voting for student representatives in these elections by mentioning what has been achieved by the Association throughout the year. “The current Member for Racial Equality has worked with admissions to create a new outreach programme which allows students to go back to their old schools to recruit students in the hopes that it will allow us to recruit students from more diverse backgrounds. I’ve worked with a group of students led by the LGBT+ Officer who have successfully lobbied the University to create pronoun training for all members of University staff which is very exciting.”
“Within my position, I’ve had the opportunity to sit on groups organised by the University of Scotland. It reaches out beyond the University and reaches to wider organisations such as the government, the NHS and local health partnerships in campaigns such as the Out of Hours Service, for example.”
Ms Smith concluded with an emphasis on the role of the student vote. “Your voice is never going to be heard unless you use it.”