If only all elections were like student elections

Pettigrew: The apathy only adds to the excitement

It’s easy to get down on university student elections. They almost seem designed to encourage apathy. After all, the winners typically hold office for only a year, too short a time to make much meaningful change before the next administration takes over.

And even when student leaders are in office, they are generally powerless to effect the changes students really want—particularly lower tuitions which are firmly controlled by senior administration, boards of governors, and provincial governments.

Add to this the fact that most university voters are only going to be around for a short time—not long enough to get much benefit out of any changes that are made—and you have a perfect storm of voter apathy.

Canadian voters in general lament that voter turnout is down near 60 per cent. That number seems huge compared to most student elections like the 11 per cent that’s apparently common at The University of Manitoba.

But low turnout shouldn’t lead us to dismiss student elections altogether, because the very things that make them less than exciting for student voters make them fun for outside observers like me.

I love following student elections at CBU. Without the burdens of campaign funds, massive political organizations, and, let’s face it, much chance of doing too much good or ill, student politics takes on a kind of joie de vivre sadly lacking in our national discourse.

Once a year, candidates descend on the CBU Commons at midnight (the first second campaigning is permitted) and plaster the place with as many pieces of paper as the local rules and environmental conscience will allow. Orange (a CBU colour) is used freely and (sometimes poorly) photocopied faces gaze at you from every vertical surface.

Some races have only one candidate, but such candidates must still be confirmed in a vote. That is, for some races voters get a ballot saying, “Do you endorse Candy McCandidate for Arts Representative? Yes or No?” The candidate has to get a majority of “yes” votes.  I don’t know if it’s ever happened, but it must be a sobering experience for a candidate to lose to, effectively, no one at all.

The big enchilada, of course, is President, but even in this race, which is often contested by many candidates, the posters are kooky, if not downright silly, often scrawled by hand, and affixed randomly in a spirited free for all. This year, one candidate is shown loading an 18th Century musket. I’m not even kidding.

My point is this: don’t get down on student democracy because so few care. Enjoy the mayhem that is only possible when only a few care.

Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.