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Why don’t students vote in union elections?

Monday 07-01-2013 - 00:00

As part of this elections edition, we asked the NUS research team to conduct a survey into the voting habits of students in their union elections. The results are interesting and throw up some useful suggestions on how unions might engage with students in the future.

Natasha Hallett, deputy Spotlight editor and Liz Garrison, participation research officer, NUS

Engagement with union elections is, of course, an institution-specific issue. Multiple campuses, high proportions of distance learners, and the polling method can all have an impact on the number of students voting in any given election.

There are a variety of factors, however, which can be tracked across unions nationwide. This is encouraging to some extent, as unions struggling with low turnouts can very easily learn lessons from those doing better.

Our survey had 1,067 respondents, of which none were in their first year – at the time of sending the survey, first-year students would not have experienced an officer election. Of those who responded, one-third said they had voted in their last union elections. Yet around a quarter of respondents were not aware that their union elections happened. And most surprisingly, 40 per cent were aware of the elections but did not vote.

For those who did know about their students’ union elections, posters and flyers were the primary way in which they had found out about them. Respondents also indicated Facebook as a significant source of information, with 43 per cent saying they took part in or saw things about last year’s elections on Facebook.

Other social media sites weren’t as widely used, however, with only 13.7 per cent of students seeing information about union elections on Twitter. Interestingly, a similar number saw candidates’ videos (13.9 per cent) and even fewer (13.4 per cent) went to a hustings or ‘question time’ event.

A part of university life

As well as asking how students found out about elections, we looked at the reasons why students voted. Two of the main reasons were to make sure their opinion was counted, and simply because they considered voting a part of university life.

One student remarked: “Having the choice to vote for who I would like to represent my voice as a student is extremely important. The more choice and say students have within university means better things may come due to having more impact on changes to the students’ union and university as a whole.”

Another respondent felt that union elections are an invaluable part of the university experience: “I feel students’ union elections have become an integral part of the student experience while at university, and they very much parallel the general elections in that you have a voice which you would like to be heard through the representative you decide to elect.”

Another respondent went on to talk about how elections help students feel part of a wider community: “I think students’ union elections are a great opportunity to get involved in student life, and it helps to get to know more students as well as make new friends.”

Of the students who responded and said they knew about their union elections but did not vote, we asked them why. Almost half gave the reason that they weren’t interested in the elections. Other reasons given were to do with the logistics of voting – they didn’t know how, when or where to vote.

Offer an incentive

We asked these students what might encourage them to vote in the future, and again, a variety of reasons were given. Some responded by saying that they wanted a better understanding of how the elections would directly affect them – unions should “make the cause more relevant to me.”

Many respondents said they would like more information about the candidates and their policies, with one student saying: “I do not feel connected to the candidates. I don’t know them or anything about them. I would find it impossible to vote for candidates I know nothing about.” Another student added: “There was not enough information supplied about candidates. It seemed to be all in the students’ union, where I never go.”

An important response given to the question of what might make them vote in the future was being able to see that it made a difference, and understanding how elected student officers could make changes. One respondent said: “I’d like to see what the successful candidate had actually achieved once the year is done. I would then be confident that the next candidate would take up the role and carry on the achievement.” Another put it more simply: “If I believed anything would change as a result of it, I would have voted.”

Finally, students said that they might be more likely to vote if an incentive was offered, for example, free food or drink: “Free food given out when you actually vote. Email a voucher when you vote online, just for a drink in the uni.”

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