It’s never really the end of February until the candidates for the SU Executive election are announced.
It’s the start of election season, and we now have the first indication of what the races will look like. As it turns out, we won’t even have to wait until results night to hear about half of them: the candidates for vice-president (academic), vice-president (operations and finance), and Board of Governors representative are all running unopposed.
This phenomenon isn’t anything new. There’s usually at least one uncontested race per election. Last year, current vice-president (operations and finance) Emma Ripka ran against joke candidate Donald Straump. The year before that, vice-president (academic) Shane Scott ran against Banana the Hamster. Despite the influence and connections that come with being in student government, it seems that the SU has a persistent problem with attracting potential talent. People just don’t want to run.
One reason for the lack of participation could be the pool of potential candidates — that is, students. Most of us are already busy enough without the responsibility of being in student government. A career politician can make their governing duties the center of their whole life, but we don’t get that privilege. Students have GPAs to maintain, resumes to build, and loans to pay off. We can’t stretch ourselves in too many directions or we’ll snap. So the kind of university student who runs for office is the kind who genuinely, passionately wants to be there. Nobody else would take on that much additional stress.
Which brings us to the second problem: most of us students seem to lack a consistent dedication to student politics. Sure, we’ll kick up a fuss if a controversial tuition hike is being proposed, or if the state of a building has declined to the point of being inexcusable (looking at you, SUB elevators). But as for the routine, boring stuff that keeps the machine running, most students just can’t be bothered.
Only about 25 per cent of us voted in last year’s election, and while engagement varies from year to year, we haven’t hit 30 per cent in recent memory. Being an executive member of the SU involves making complicated decisions about changes to make on campus and attending countless meetings to put those changes in action. It involves a high level of commitment to the dry, difficult processes that make up most of governing. For most of us, even a tiny fraction of that commitment isn’t something we’re willing to make. Filling out the ballot takes less than five minutes and can be done online, yet most of us never do. So of course hardly anyone is going to run.
To the apathetic among us, uncontested student elections may seem like a non-issue. Does it really matter if the races are contested, so long as the spots get filled? But this attitude fails to understand how significant the SU really is. As distant as student governance can sometimes feel, the SU has a lot of direct control over all aspects of campus life. They oversee repairs and renovations of SUB, run campus-wide events like Week of Welcome, and petition all levels of government to pay attention to our interests. A position in an organization like that shouldn’t be granted to someone just because they decided they wanted it and no one else did.
If half of our future SU executive is basically already decided, this can hardly be called an election. At this point, getting a position in the SU executive feels less like a reward earned by hard work and dedication, and more like a participation award. This isn’t to say that the uncontested candidates are lazy, but there are no real stakes. The unopposed candidates will still attend forums and argue their ideas, but it seems kind of pointless. Even if their positions are abysmal, who else are we supposed to vote for? Voting “none of the above” is an option, but refusing to select a candidate isn’t necessarily helpful. If the only options are either a bad candidate or no candidate at all, that does nothing to help get an important role filled.
There isn’t a quick or easy way to fix this problem. But the first step is changing the atmosphere surrounding student engagement in politics. We must be willing to connect the things we want improved to the processes meant to improve them. Complaining about broken elevators won’t fix them, but voting in the right candidates and paying attention to plebiscites and referenda (or even deciding to run for office) just might.