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Devil's Advocate: Should Voting in Union Elections be Compulsory?


NO - William Finlator


Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said that people should be forced to be free. Forty years later a France gripped by Rousseau’s genuinely innovative conceptual tool book adopted the tactic of the guillotine to make it so. With greater emphasis on being forced than being free, the result was a deeply coercive, paranoid state apparatus that placed abstract concepts, ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘brotherhood’ above the value of human life.


Whether the comparison of Isabel to Robespierre is a fair one or not, it’s nevertheless enlightening. Because when you treat society like an inanimate mass, a grand sludge, a thing to be manipulated, you avoid the necessity of engaging with people as they see themselves. In other words, you avoid the problem by making people the problem. Those refusing to conform to your narrowly defined perspective are wrong, and their complaints are treated like an issue, a thing to be solved, rather than empathised with and acted upon.


To my mind, this is the main problem with compulsory voting in university elections. It is wrong because it paints us, the student body, as the party at fault. University democracy, by contrast, is understood as satisfactory – and is simply waiting to receive its just legitimation.


Such a characterisation I would disagree with. That I don’t vote doesn’t mean I’m committing an immoral or amoral act. In fact, I’m doing something completely reasonable. Yes, a student representative is likely to make some changes to the way in which I experience university. And in a limited sense, if it could be well-directed to the right sort of person, I would love to contribute.


But, when I am voting for a student representative, I do not feel like I’m voting for a particular set of policies. Instead, I feel like I’m voting for a certain sort of person. I’m backing an individuals’ hollow fantasies about themselves. In other words, I’m reinforcing a concept – namely, the ‘student politician’.


And I don’t want to have to do that. I don’t want to, because I don’t think that the differences between these ‘student politicians’ are anything but superficial. When they make a decision on my behalf about something that I care about, it’s probably not going to matter that they’re in the role rather than a different individual.

Because, when it comes to something like the allocation of funding to societies – I really don’t think my legitimation of a particular candidate is going to translate into my desired action. As the manifestos themselves, which usually focus on character traits and vague priorities tacitly admit, it’s hard to marry this sort of representation with actual felt change. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that ‘student politicians’ are merely glorified technocrats. The decisions they make are so inconsequential yet numerous – with a new minor policy-decision to be made every week - that accountability requires a sort of attention no one is willing to give these representatives.


Part of the problem of student politics is that, generally, the quality of the candidates is so poor, whether at this university (which evidence points to as one of the better ones) or at others. When I see a candidate able to convince that their self-conceptualisation is built off something real – compassion, passion or life-experience – I’ll be the first to vote. But as it stands, me and others cannot help feel anything but a deep apathy and disconnect. The result is the low turnout that necessitates asking whether it is sensible to force students to vote.


And forcing people to vote? I mean, like, really? The policy is laughably and self-evidently unenforceable. How would compulsory voting be achieved? Are we going to be rounding people up outside Pret at five past noon, not letting them go until they engage in a literal act of box-ticking. The answer is no, and the clear absurdity of such an image is itself indicative.


We don’t consider it legitimate to force people to vote in these elections, because most understand that student politics does matter, but not that much. Unlike real democracy, it’s not something we’re willing to give anything meaningful to defend. We can’t be convinced to go to war for it, or even spend five meanings reading the manifestos of the leading candidates. Instead, student democracy is a feeble and embarrassing mock-up of the real thing.


So yes, something might have to give when it comes to student politics. Maybe the charade has to crumble in on itself. But compulsory voting in student elections? Well, that’s not the answer to anything but the question of ‘what the worst conceivable decision the Student Union could make’. ‘Student politicians’ treat us like a problem. Such an approach is arrogant and offensive. The rhetoric of compulsory voting is the latest embarrassing manifestation of a toxic relationship with the people they purport to represent.


YES - Isabel Loubser


Engagement with student politics is at an all-time low. You could bribe Fresher’s with prime real estate on north street, and they still wouldn’t vote (trust me, I’ve tried). I imagine only 30% of the student population could name the Association President, and about 0.3% the DoWell. Many methods have been tried in order to get turnout rates up — giving out stickers, providing cupcakes (do they think we’re four?), sending out numerous (and I must stress numerous) encouraging emails. Time and time again, these fail. So, what to do? There’s really only one option: force students to vote.


Because, despite what William would have you believe, student politics is important. Student representatives act as the mechanism through which students can express their dissatisfaction with whatever may plague their precious hours of sleep — from the serious to the benign. Accommodation costs that make camping out in Butts Wynd seem like a sane option. Tutors who so benevolently open their office doors for 13 minutes every month. Hummus and pepper library sandwiches that don’t contain any peppers (I mean what the hell is that about?!).

The real question here is why University democracy is so weak. For me, it seems obvious that the lethargy and inefficiency within the system is caused by the fact that so few engage with it. When we don’t value these positions, they don’t have the mandate or the support to enact significant change. Quite simply, why would the University listen to the proposals of a President that less than 7% of the student population voted for? You’d have to be crazy.

If everyone voted, University structures might take the proposals of student representatives more seriously, because they would represent the general opinion of the student population (and, as we all know, student satisfaction is key to top place rankings). Further, representatives would be more accountable for executing their manifesto proposals. Because when everyone votes, everyone now has a vested interest in seeing what they have voted for come to fruition.


Running for a position wouldn’t be an ego trip, it would be difficult, precisely because you have to appeal to the people who might not even really want to vote at all. You have to convince them not only that what you are proposing is important, but that the position itself is important. Achieving this would require the construction of manifestos based on thoughtfulness, creativity, and ambition.

Compulsory voting would add value to a process that has become characterised by a sense of vapidity. Fake it till you make it, as they say. That’s what mandatory voting would achieve — if you absolutely have to vote, you think you may as well vote for something important, so you might spend 5 minutes reading over the manifestos. Through this, student politics could become reinvigorated by mass involvement, active debate, and more dynamic campaigning.

Yes, you can argue that not voting is equally an expression of your democratic right. But, let’s be honest, those who don’t vote aren’t making that decision out of some deep-rooted desire to subvert the norms of the (student) political institution. They are lazy. In fact, it is a truth universally acknowledged that students are, in general, lazy. We don’t do anything unless we absolutely have to, or see its immediate positive impact. Herein lies the problem — the vicious cycle: no-one votes, so sabbs can’t have a material impact, so no-one sees the point of voting. The cycle has got to be broken somehow.

And Will, let’s all calm down for a second, because we’re forcing people to put a tick in a box, not fight to the death in some amphitheatre-esque version of 601 in the name of the new Association president. Compulsory voting in student elections is as likely to lead to a ‘paranoid state apparatus’ as you are to get a ‘best dressed’ award — frankly impossible. (side note: please for the love of God stop wearing all those shades of green). Besides, students still have an opportunity to express their disillusionment or dissatisfaction with student politics — they can spoil their ballot. This would accurately represent the number of students who feel there is either no point to student politics, or their interests aren’t being represented by the candidates. Surely, this would be more effective than some wishy-washy expressions of disappointment shared between friends, or some overdramatic tirade published in a student paper, in communicating frustration with the current state of student politics to the people who can actually change it.

Finally, let’s get down to the practicalities. How to enforce voting? Fine students a tenner for not visiting the ballot boxes (pop it on the bill alongside those overdrawn books). And what could this newfound income be used for? We could finally put some peppers in the hummus and pepper library sandwiches. Now that would be revolutionary.


Image: Unsplash

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