Voter apathy is getting out of control
With the URSU elections just 6 days away, candidates are mobilizing, interested students are informing themselves, and the debates are well underway. We are in the preliminary stages of a new union leadership being formed. And like every year, I find myself in an all-too-familiar position, a position of total ignorance towards the upcoming election.
Every year the elections come and go, and each year I pay them little mind. “I just don’t really care about student politics,” I would say to others. “I don’t even know what I would be voting for.”
Last year, around 10 percent of the students voted in the URSU elections, and I have to believe that the other 90 percent of students, who are still members of the union regardless of whether or not they vote, are in the same position as me. Year after year, I had no interest, fueled by a lack of understanding.
Maybe I was just too lazy to inform myself, and that manifested itself as “I don’t really care,” or maybe I just thought it didn’t matter who I voted for. Whatever the reason, I had never taken the time to appreciate what the students’ union does, and more importantly, I had never taken the time to tell them what I wanted. I guess I always thought that the students union didn’t matter; I didn’t think they actually did anything important. I felt like I would never notice if they were gone. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“It wouldn’t be a pretty picture without a students’ union,” Kyle Addison told me during a Monday interview. “If there wasn’t a student’s union, there’s a huge chance of tuition being catastrophically high. And not to bring down the university, because they treat us very well, but they could walk all over us without representation.” Addison is one of three presidential candidates this year. He has also been our URSU president for the past two years.
During my time at the U of R, I never considered that Addison is right. Without representation there is no one there to make sure students aren’t getting screwed over. We would have no voice, and no power in the institution that we support. As I spoke to Kyle, I began to understand, piece by piece, how important the students’ union is, and how different our school would be without it.
But the union can’t be effective if it’s not accurately representing the student population. They need the feedback and opinions of the people that they are trying to represent. They need students to get involved. Apathy about voting is a feared problem in federal politics, and there is the same problem in student politics. If you have problems with how the school is run, then the union is your only avenue to make change happen. It’s the only avenue to share your voice.
After years of not being a part of student politics, I decided that this year I was going to inform myself. On my mission to learn about this mysterious entity called the students’ union, I connected with some of this year’s candidates to see if they could shed some light, any light, on what I had been missing, in the hopes that I would not be in the dark any longer.
A huge contributor to my apathy towards the URSU elections was the result of how little I knew about the union itself. I knew that I had to pay fees, and a gazillion other little charges. But I never really understood what they actually did; I never understood how much the union does to make my time at the U of R a positive experience.
When I started to reach out to some of the current union executives, who were also running in the election, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they all responded to my interest in URSU with enthusiasm and an eagerness to educate. As I spoke to Addison, it was clear that education was the first step to getting the most out of my membership.
“Well, ultimately the students’ union is here to represent its members,” he told me. “Its a very diverse campus with students that have very diverse needs. The students’ union needs to acknowledge the needs of each type of student and provide them with the services that benefit their student experience and make their academic experience at the U of R a much better one.
Finding the motivation to vote has always been a problem for me, and not knowing anything about the organization I was voting for didn’t help things. As I found out, a little education goes a long way.
URSU is here to work for us as students, they are here to look out for our interests and represent us at various levels of government and other communities, not only provincially, but nationally as well. But without participation from the members they are trying to represent, the union leadership becomes unrepresentative, and therefore, less appealing to participate in. It’s a snowball effect, and it’s something that needs to change if the union is going to get better.
“The people who are going to be representing you are going to have no idea about how to represent you unless you can let us know how you want to be represented,” Kyle noted during our interview. “The students’ union would be much more effective around campus if we could get students’ opinions and feedback. If students would vote and give us their feedback on what they want to see happen, then the students’ union can be an effective organization.”
And one of the biggest ways to do that is to vote. That’s the first step, at least. My journey to learn about the importance of the union lead me into a conversation with Kaytlyn Barber, an URSU executive for the last two years. And, as she pointed out to me, elections are one of the biggest steps that the union takes to understand what its members want.
“The students are the owners of the students’ union just like the students are the owners of the Owl,” she told me. “Elections are a really important piece of generating feedback from students and what they want the organization to be in the future.”
If the union is the voice of the students, then not participating means that you have no input in what that voice is going to say, or what they are going to do. As Barber pointed out, if you don’t exercise your voice come election time, you are giving up a chance to shape your representation into what you want.
“The repercussions of not voting are that the students’ union won’t be guided by its members. If the students don’t vote, they’re not having their say in what they want to students’ union to be. By not voting, you’re forgoing your opportunity to have input, so you don’t know if the students’ union is really going to be what students want it to be”
As representatives of students, it’s important that the union executives not only get feedback and opinions from the people they represent, but also that they connect with the people they represent. Forging relationships with students on campus, and getting to know all of the people they represent is a priority for all union executives – provided that the students are willing to give them a chance.
As Barber mentioned during our conversation, the URSU executives try to be as open to students as possible. “We love being invited to various student events around campus, and we’ll do our very best to go to as many as we can. We love it when student groups come and let us know what is going on and we’re certainly here to give a hand.”
“Our offices are always open,” she continues. “You can talk to the front desk, and we are certainly willing to meet with students anytime they like. We do our very best to be accessible to students whenever they are in need.”
When speaking to Barber, it was clear to me that the union was here to listen to what students wanted. They are truly invested in the interests of students, and it’s clear that they wanted me to have the best experience at the U of R that I could.
Now I understood what the union was here to do, to be our voice. The next thought that entered my mind was concerning the power of that voice. Sure, the union was here to represent students, but how powerful is that voice? How much of an impact can they really have? Can a union of students really make a difference on a larger scale?
It’s one thing to walk around as the face of the student body, but it’s another to actually make a difference on issues like tuition increases. Before this year, I always thought that URSU didn’t have that much power as an organization. Again, I was wrong. And as Kyle explained to me, URSU has several connections within the provincial government, which they use to advocate student interests on a provincial level.
“Two years ago, we met with the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union executives and we reenacted what is known as the Saskatchewan Students’ Coalition, a provincial lobbying group which consists of all two universities and SIAST,” he told me. “Then we took that through the provincial government, and fostered a strong relationship with the minister of advanced education and even extended it to the other cabinet ministers.”
Building and maintaining relationships is a necessary part of any healthy students’ union. In order to get things like a tuition freeze, student benefits, and funding from the government, the union needs to form connections with people in office.
“I think that it’s important that whoever is going to lead URSU in the future can foster and have a positive working relationship with the provincial government,” Addison noted. “And [right now] we do have a great relationship with the current minister of advanced education. He is very open to us; we can book meetings with him, and voice our concerns. He is very accessible to us and we can reach out to him. All the positive amendments to post-secondary education that we received over the last budget cycle were achieved because of the relationship we have with the provincial government.”
Not only does the union have the ears of government officials, they’re also responsible for spending thousands upon thousands, of its member’s dollars. Using our money to install things like sponsorship programs and student services creates an engaging environment for students. That’s a good thing, because our school experience should be a little more than just studying for tests and stressing over term papers.
When I asked Kyle about some of the ways the union looks out for the economic interests of the students, he was quick to bring up the Owl.
“Two years ago the Owl was in a debt of 190,000 dollars. Now they’re projected to make a 30,000 dollar surplus … we can take that money and funnel it back into URSU and do things like decrease student fees, or increase sponsorship funding.”
When the Owl was in that massive debt, needless to say, business was less than stellar. Nightlife at the Owl was non-existent. The students’ union took the initiative to hire a marketing supervisor, and start a marketing campaign. They also forged a relationship with Molson Canada to work on getting drink prices down to the “student calibre” levels they are at today. After that, the union created a growth initiative that rewarded student societies with dividend checks if they hosted events at the Owl, entitling them to portion of the Owl’s monthly revenue.
“This all gave the student societies and our university leaders a reason to be at our campus bar and contribute to the economic well-being of it.”
By this point, I had learned enough, and I was convinced. It was clear that the students’ union was a much larger part of the school, and the province, than I had originally thought. I never suspected that they had the amount of influence that they did, and that is partially what contributed to my apathy.
“Unfortunately, voter apathy is huge, and voter turnout last year was barely 10 per cent, which is minuscule. It is very unfortunate that happened. And I think students should talk to the candidates, I think that by asking the questions that you want an answer for you will be much more inspired to go out and cast your vote, because at that point, you are more involved.”
The students’ union is here to work for us, the students. But if they are going to do that with any effectiveness they need the students to get involved with them, tell them what they want and vote for whom they want. Ten per cent of the student body isn’t representative of the university population. And as Barber pointed out to me, the only way to improve that is to cast a vote, and share your voice.
“The students on campus, the URSU members, are owners of the union. It’s a non-profit and like any other non-profit we are run by our members, and the voting is your opportunity to have input on the organization. By not voting you’re giving up an important opportunity to have your say in what you want us to be,” she commented. “URSU is just that, a union of students, that work together to make everyone’s time on campus better, and so elections are an opportunity to have your say. To give that up and not even take the opportunity, it’s a shame.”
I left both of my conversations with Barber and Addison with a new understanding of the importance of a students’ union, and a new sense of responsibility to become a part of the process by casting my vote and sharing my voice.
Before I finished my conversation with Addison, he left me with one final message to students.
“I want to send the message to people who don’t vote. This is the most important thing you can do at the U of R to make sure that your university experience is the best that it can be. We are suffering a severe culture of apathy towards politics right now, and if it continues to go the way it is we are in trouble. I just want everyone to come out and vote, to make an educated vote. And first and foremost, I want this to be a fun event for students. We’re all at the prime years of our lives, we all want to have the best times of our lives, we want to be one university, one community. Without the students union, that would be would be in jeopardy.”