While the low voter turnout at the Concordia Student Union election last week may not be a surprise, it can call to question the legitimacy of the slate that was elected.
The Fusion slate won the election with 73 per cent of the vote 8212; a decisive victory over it’s opposition, Community, which earned 27 per cent. But only about 3,200 students, or less than 10 per cent of the electorate, cast a ballot.
So when Fusion executives take office over the summer, they will be doing so with the support of less than seven per cent of the students they represent.
“There are two things that give any organization or government legitimacy,” said Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia University and associate at the Canada Research Chair in electoral studies. “One is the constitutional rules, or contract, it has with its members. The other is its ability to maintain accountability. When the person who wins gets in with five per cent, how much support to they really have? “
Hicks admitted that voter turnout has always been low in student governments. But across the board, the number of younger people going to the polls 8212; whether for a municipal, provincial or federal election 8212; has been declining.
If that trend is not reversed, Hicks said, it can present some dangers.
“Organizations can become vulnerable to being taken over by groups that don’t necessarily represent the views of the people they represent,” he said. “You only need to mobilize a small group of a community in order to win, and that could be an extremist group.”
For governments and organizations to maintain their legitimacy and accountability, it is incumbent on them to increase turnout, Hicks said.
But as far as getting students at Concordia to vote, Hicks pointed to the inherent difficulty an urban university has with the relationship between students and its union.
“In Montreal, the student government isn’t the centre of the universe,” he said. “When a Concordia student is wondering what to do on Friday night, they’re probably not looking to see what the student union is doing.”
Regardless, the electoral expert said, the onus is on the government to make students care.
“It’s a difficult task, but they’re the ones taking the fees and spending the money.”
Hicks suggested that an outreach program, prominent CSU branding or an overhaul of the entire system could help encourage students to vote.
“The compulsory voting system has been successful in increasing turnout,” he said, pointing to Australia and Italy as examples. “You can still abstain or spoil you ballot, but everybody has the chance to to practice their right to vote.”
In states where compulsory voting is enforced, punishment for not voting range from having one’s name posted on the doors of city hall to a small fine.
Concordia University’s chief electoral officer, Oliver Cohen, said he was hoping for a higher turnout at the polls this year. But, he said, the CSU is not looking to change the system just yet.
“We need to make students more aware of the student union,” Cohen said matter-of-factly. “We have to push the lines of communication, market the CSU, get more information out about the union and the elections, and make students aware.”
Cohen said his suspicion was that this year’s low turnout, 8212; which saw over 1,000 fewer voters than last year’s election 8212; was the result of students not knowing much about the union and what it does.
“I guess when it comes to the majority of students at school, they don’t care because they’re not informed.”