By the end of March, students at the University of Winnipeg will have a new president and board of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA).
Whether or not they actually elected their representatives is a different story altogether.
Voter turnout on campuses across the country seldom reaches over 20 per cent of the student population. The U of W’s highest voter turnout was 13 per cent, three years ago.
Carson Jerema, the editor of Maclean’s OnCampus for Macleans.ca, has seen his fair share of student elections.
“Students almost by definition are transient,” he said. “They’re in school for a couple years and may pay attention to what goes on in university governance. But (they) are not going to become familiar (with student politics) because they’re not going to be there for very long.”
Jerema adds that this unfamiliarity with the democratic process results in the low voter turnout seen in most schools.
Having low voter numbers calls the legitimacy of the organization into question, says Gregory Furmaniuk, a first-year politics student interested in the upcoming election.
“It isn’t enough to have 10-30 per cent of people voting,” said Furmaniuk. “We need to have a much higher percentage voting in order to have a legitimate and accountable student administration.”
Current UWSA president Jason Syvixay believes that communication between student unions and students is the key to improving voter turnout.
He encourages candidates in the election to utilize the size of the campus.
“At our campus, there’s an opportunity because we have this main campus where (the UWSA is) located in the basement, but we’re fairly visible,” said Syvixay. “Others may have separate campuses, so it’s hard to engage those students. At ours, there’s a real opportunity here.”
Student apathy is just one of the many challenges next year’s UWSA has to face. With one-year terms, candidates face pressure to improve the organization in a short amount of time.
“You only have a year,” said Syvixay. “That in itself creates unrealistic expectations upon elected representatives by students.”
On the other hand, students need to elect representatives who have a genuine interest in the UWSA.
“(Representatives) don’t have to be accountable for decisions they make and don’t have to face re-election ... this is an inherent problem in student unions that make accountability measures difficult to implement,” said Jerema.
The UWSA could see 20 new board members in April. If all positions are not filled, the executives can appoint students to the positions or hold a by-election in the fall to fill the spots.
“I have faith in the democratic process. Ultimately students will gather the right amount of facts to vote for the right person,” said Syvixay.
Furmaniuk recommends that candidates focus on fixing the current UWSA deficit.
“We should make sure the deficit does not cause a raise in fees for students,” he said. “Making university affordable ... is more important than starting new projects.”
For more information on the upcoming elections, visit www.theuwsa.ca.
Published in Volume 65, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 10, 2011)