Commentary, Opinion

SSMU must tackle its low election turnouts head-on

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executive elections and Winter referendum took place last week, and I think it’s time we address the elephant in the room: No one gives a toss. 

Voter turnout came to a meagre 16.7 per cent, a slight rise from 12.9 per cent the year before. Students have also appeared disinterested in the elections on social media, with SSMU’s Instagram posts receiving bot-like engagement. 

But it’s not just student voters showing little interest: SSMU’s interest in driving election engagement has also been neither and nothing, lacking teeth and intent, like a frat boy’s desire to learn basic hygiene. 

This year, every executive position, bar one, ran unopposed. After a couple of hours, the election then restarted because of a “confusing question”—how’s that for effective election preparation? And despite candidates having the ability to spend up to $300 on campaign materials, among other resources, the communication and in-person campaigning in the run-up to the election was scarce. 

Low turnout in student government elections is not a new trend across Canadian universities. Is it the students not caring that causes SSMU to be uninspired, or does SSMU’s lack of election leadership lead to student apathy? I’d argue it’s the latter.

Of course you should want to vote. SSMU collects $2,600,000 from students, after all, and if you’re involved with a club or a regular at Gerts, SSMU is relevant to your student experience. But it’s not your responsibility to care: That responsibility rests with SSMU.

And the problem with SSMU’s approach is it’s surface level; it lacks both incentives and effectiveness. The incentive for students to vote is “the election has opened, check your inbox,” and then an expectation that students vote. It’s a “you come to me” approach, and it doesn’t work. 

Student politics is dull at the best of times; it demands an injection of energy if anyone is to take it seriously. The organizers need to take the campaign to the students. This means better organization, head-turning incentives, and a cohesive drive to persuade students to care. 

For starters, let’s do away with unopposed elections. In this year’s election, all the races were unopposed apart from the vice-president (VP) Internal—and this isn’t a new trend; the VP Finance’s race also ran unopposed in 2022. Having just one candidate run calls into question why voters need to vote in the first place. It reduces the incentive for both voters and election candidates to engage, as the outcome is predetermined. Ensuring choice also gives students different ideas to think about and mull over. And this is the gravy of any election, whether in SSMU or elsewhere: Giving voters something to vote for.

Currently, a candidate needs 100 signatures to get onto the ballot, which is fine, especially relative to the number of Instagram followers everyone has. But mark my words, getting someone to sign your SSMU campaign is a timbit harder than getting them to like a recent picture of you dancing down a Punta Cana beach. 

Let the 100 signatures be the marker to be guaranteed, but take the top two candidates no matter what in order to ensure there’s competition. And if just a single candidate is running, regardless of the 100 signatures, there must be additional time mandated to entice more candidates and ensure that students are given a choice.

Now that we have some choice on the table, let’s get some incentives in place—both during the campaign period and the voting. Simply, let’s make a thing of this and put on a show for voters. 

It starts with more general campaigning around campus, but to make this more effective, SSMU must go beyond tabling: Social events, debates, and, crucially, incorporating an incentive to vote. As the expression goes, provide pizza to the polls

Aside from putting in more meaningful drive and creative ideas, this is also when the student media comes in. This could include interviews, hosting election debates, and even general meet and greets for the candidates. 

But these efforts will fall short without ignition from SSMU. And if they don’t provide it, I’m afraid the outcome will be inevitable. Ne’er a student casting a vote.

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