With student elections approaching, new Academic Representation Coordinator Chase Greenfield has challenged students to engage with the process
With nominations for the Students’ Association Elections opening on 16 February, students are gearing up for another busy election cycle. But this one brings with it some sweeping changes.
This year, elections, which were previously the domain of the Director of Wellbeing and Equality, are being run by a team of Students’ Association staff. The Saint sat down with Academic Representation Coordinator, Chase Greenfield, to discuss the elections process, voter turnout, and popular misconceptions.
Mr Greenfield, a former St Andrews postgraduate, was assigned the role of overseeing elections in the early fall.
He said, “My role is new. Essentially my role supports academic-facing elected student representatives. So people like our school presidents, our class reps, our director of education, our postgraduate reps, people along those lines. Essentially I support them through a variety of mechanisms.
“Training is one of them, developing workshops and other resources for them, doing policy research is another area, and then I run elections. So I ran our class rep elections in September, our postgrad rep elections in October, and now I get to run these big ones in March.”
The Director of Wellbeing and Equality (DoWell) used to organize the elections every second semester, but that is no longer the case.
Current DoWell, Anna-Ruth Cockerham, said, “Historically elections were run by the Director of Wellbeing and Equality. This frequently left them unable to attend to the responsibilities they’re actually elected for during a large part of Semester Two. The elections were also overly reliant on the work of student volunteers, making the elections difficult to coordinate and run.”
Previously, student volunteers helped run elections, with training having to take place each year for every incoming batch of volunteers.
The switch brings a number of changes in how elections are run, most notably in the areas of candidate support and the candidate rulebook.
Mr Greenfield said, “The first thing is obviously that staff are going to be running elections rather than students, so [candidates] maybe will feel a little bit more comfortable coming to talk to an impartial source. The staff are just invested in making sure we have candidates at all, and that we have good voter turnout, and that the candidates feel supported.”
Ms Cockerham said, “The staff elections team will mean that elections are run much more easily and consistently year on year, and also allow the Director of Wellbeing and Equality to attend to the responsibilities they were elected to do. When we ran the Elections Review, we also found that quite a number of people interpreted the elections rules and committee as unfair and biased. Having an Independent Returning Officer is intended to remove the perception of bias and people favouring their friends, and improve the trust in our elections process.
“We have also changed the rules significantly to have a set of principles rather than prescriptive rules, so that the Returning Officer will be challenged to determine whether a candidate’s actions were fair, and how to deal with any unfair advantage they gained, rather than candidates being punished for minor infractions.”
On the rule changes, Greenfield said, “The rules are also going to be a little bit simpler as well. They’ll still be around ten, twelve pages, something along those lines. But they won’t be the 16 to 25 pages that they’ve been in the past. They’re based on a smaller set of principles. So things like fairness, making sure the election is open to everybody, making sure that people don’t get unfair advantag- es, making sure that the campaigns aren’t a nuisance to the community. So things that are a little more bite-sized, easier to understand, rather than being meticulous about what kinds of Facebook groups you can post in.”
Keeping elections open and equitable is of the utmost importance to Greenfield and his team.
He said, “We’re just providing guidance to [candidates] and making sure they’re really aware from the get-go that they need to ensure equal access to all Union resources including information from the current role holder, which is maybe themselves if they’re running for re-election, or another position, or something along those lines. So just providing guidance and an approach saying, ‘Okay, here’s how you would approach other candidates for your position. If you can’t be impartial you need to let the elections committee know.’
“That way a staff member like myself, or another member of the elections team, can come in and give them some impartial information.
“We also have a mandatory candidate meeting that all candidates will be required to attend, kind of outlining the rules so that there’s no way to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that’.”
He added, “We have a lot of different students from a lot of different backgrounds at St Andrews, and we want to make sure that the Students’ Association is listening to all of them, and we can’t do that without a really effective democratic process and procedure. And I think the elections are the best way for students to participate, and share their voices, and say what’s important to them.
“There’s a distinction that I like to make between form and content. We’re there to provide advice and guidance on the form and structure of how things should be run. We’re providing the physical infrastructure with which to run things, but we’re not making the actual promises and campaign pieces of what’s important to students or saying, ‘Oh you have to run on this’ or ‘This should be your position on this’. That’s completely determined by you guys, the students. So it’s really important, to me at least as a staff member, and I know my staff team feels the same way, to let the content be in the students’ hands and just providing as equitable of an open platform for people to share those ideas, to debate their ideas amongst each other, and for the best ideas to go forward and be elected.”
Impartiality is critical in student elections, which are often disregarded as mere popularity contests.
But Greenfield disagrees with this assessment saying, “I don’t think it’s as extreme as people think because even if [someone] know[s] a ridiculous number of students, even if [they] know 2,000 students, there’s still at least a majority of students who are voting on top of that that are outside of that ring. So you have a whole pool of students you can convince outside of that.
“It’s not necessarily down to who you know as much as who you’ve listened to, which I think is a really important distinction.”
The elections themselves do tend to yield a high voter turnout relative to that of other UK universities. Relative turnout in 2021 was just under 28%. This, according to Greenfield, placed St Andrews at number two in terms of Students’Association election turnout.
Greenfield said, “I think because we have such a unified effort of all our school presidents, all our sabbatical officers, all our SRC officers, all our student trustees, we’re all electing them in the same race, I think that puts a lot more collective energy behind something.
“I think we do it really well that way. That’s one of the things that is one of our strengths, is that we put everything into one time of year, one election, one link. Students can go and vote for everything, so even if they only care about their one friend who is running for one officer position, they’re voting because they know that they’ll be involved in that.”
He continued, “In terms of things we’d like to do to continue to increase turnout, I think getting our candidate numbers back up to what they have been in the past. That’s one thing you’ll note in our elections stats is that consistently over time our relative voter turnout has gone down and similar[ly] with the number of candi- dates for each position, although there are a couple of slight deviations.”
Students can get involved in elections in a variety of ways. The most obvious way is by voting, and students are welcome to vote exclusively for specific issues or positions they feel most passionately about. It is not necessary to fill in the entire ballot. But even before the ballots open there are still ways to get involved. From nudging people to run, attending the sabbatical debate and SRC hustings, or campaigning for friends, there is plenty to do this election cycle. And it’s imperative that students are involved and understand the implications of their efforts.
Greenfield said, “I think a lot of students often think, ‘Oh, well those don’t really do anything’ or ‘It’s not really clear to me what the purpose of those are’ or ‘How does any of this really matter anyways?’. I definitely know that there are some students who feel that apathy and aren’t interested in participating or see the point of this. But I wish students knew that there are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds of resources going behind each of these different student’s committees and Union resources. And our sabbatical officers and our student trustees have a majority on the Students’ Association Board. They set the long term strategic direction for a pretty big charity organization within St Andrews.”
He continued, “There’s a lot of power to be had there that students maybe don’t realize. And the University really does listen to these representatives. I’ve been in plenty of meetings on both sides of the table where I’m a student rep or been work- ing for the University and listening to student input. And, honestly, the people at the table who are respected most are the student representatives. And they have seats on the University Court even, which sets the strate- gic direction for the entire University. I think three of those roles on the University Court are decided by stu- dents, which is a pretty big number
“People sometimes miss the value statements and not every student sees the value in what the Union and University is doing. And even if they’re dissatisfied, I would say that this is a really great opportunity to voice that and either stand as a candidate and say you want to change the way things are done, or vote for the people who you think represent better ideals. I think that’s something that I would really like to see change over time. You know, there’s a certain pocket of students, maybe a certain percentage of students, that I think will always not be engaged. But I think that the more we can share the value of elections and what their voice does, the better.”
Nominations open 16 February and close 3 March. Voting will take place from 10 March until 11 March, and will be accessible through a tab in MySaint.
Illustration: Marios Diakourtis