By Crispen Rateiwa| Nust-ZW
So many issues affect students, yet a few cast votes effectively surrendering power and overall decision making to a small student segment
What are the effects of voter apathy? How does boycotting participation in student council elections affect our welfare? Why are youths taking this right to choose a representative through ballot casting for granted? What can be done to increase the level of voter participation? The more students understand the benefits of voting in student elections, the more increase in the level of voter participation.
Colleges and universities are places were election reform and systems could be studied and tested. Each academic year student representative council (SRC) elections are held. However, there is widespread low voter turnout characteristic of the national electoral system. Voting is a duty, but people ignore this and a scant percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
The present and future generation of students should learn to value and enjoy democracy. In the first and second Chimurenga, Zimbabweans successfully fought for freedom ideals and principles. The greatest barrier to voting is the lack of patriotism in a majority of young adults. Students should revisit history and understand that in the second Chimurenga, the black majority fought for one man one vote – voting as the ability to use our voices, to make things happen.
Anyone who has interest in their welfare should care about politics. When the biggest student segment fails to take part in elections, they automatically surrender their entire academic year welfare to the student council elected by a small segment. What this means is the elected council will only serve, consult and do what pleases its voter constituency thereby sidelining issues and views relevant to the majority students. It is almost as if they don’t exist at all, as long as they don’t mobilize and force the student council to listen to them. Voter apathy affect students in all spheres of life.
Generally, only about 25% of students cast their votes in student council elections. What could be the reason? Is it issueless campaigns? Is it an insufficient electoral system? Is it because they are uninformed and uninterested? Surely, if there is no good candidate, why can not one field themselves for the posts? Many students claim that their courses do not allow much time for extra-curricular activities such as voting. When asked why they do not vote, many people report that they have too little free time. Some may argue that incumbency advantage and student representative council unresponsiveness to constituent desires is enough to deter even the most politically conscience person from voting. The right to vote is not seen as powerful, it is seen as pointless. However, students need to know that voices really can change the system.
Just like in national elections, student politics conforms to a pattern that whoever has the most money and big business support will have the best ads and with them, an improved public image. The vote is not seen as influential, as it does not translate to genuine student representation. This leads to elected student representative council unresponsiveness to constituent desires, but to their sponsors. Many voters are discouraged that their views are not represented by their elected student representatives, and consequently, that they have no real power in their student council.
“I feel politicians are fake, they claim to represent us. Actually, they represent powerful business people and politicians who sponsor their colourful public campaigns. Some get bribed when they get influential positions” said a NUST student, on condition of anonymity.
What must be done?
The desire to vote is one that needs to be taught. Tertiary level students need education on political matters so that they differentiate propaganda and buzzwords and focus on reality of issues at hand when they vote. Political awareness or voter education in school need to be established in order for university and college youths to participate politically. Thus, students need the important message that their vote matters and as soon as they start to vote they are more likely to continue voting, as they grow older.
A needlessly archaic voting procedure that creates barriers to voting should be dealt with. Internet voting would increase voting by drastic standards. University students have excellent access to computers and enjoy using them. Online voting would be an excellent means by which to not only simplify the process, but increase its accessibility as well. Internet voting provides a great deal of ease for voters, allowing them to vote from the comfort of their home or even from a dorm room. Telephone voting, early voting, and absentee voting can also be considered for those who have difficulty making it to the polls. Schools, libraries, and work places all have internet access. These plausible and indispensable alternatives skyrockets voting availability. Students on attachment can also vote! Aren’t they also paying fees?
Voting can be made fun and rewarding through multimedia. Internet graphics, pictures, and sounds can attract young, first time voters in tertiary institutions. The internet has become a useful resource and (powerful) advertising tool for many political candidates. Politicians need to court virgin voters through new information technology. Advertising campaign and candidate information web sites could increase issue awareness; thereby, getting young people excited about voting. Politicians should successfully run engaging social media handles such as facebook, twitter, youtube and Instagram.
Since all paid up university students are eligible to vote, they would be expected to vote. At university, a student identity card qualifies one to vote in student council polls. Fines should be enacted upon those who do not show up at polls on election day. After an election is held, voter checklists should be monitored for no-show voters, and these persons should be sent a notice for a fine. Should this fine not be paid within a set time limit, these non-voters would face a disciplinary hearing for a more significant punishment.
In order to aid voters to follow through with their constitutional right, and avoid fines, universities and colleges must provide transportation to all eligible students, especially those learning in places away from the main campus to the polls at no expense. To eliminate excuses many non-voters give such as the burdensomeness to travel to polls, transportations is necessary.
To increase voter turnout there is need to eliminate wasted votes. In order to assure the electorate that their vote counts, the electoral system should allow vote casting according to the voter preferences. The voter will mark against his or her best five candidates in order of the first choice to the last fifth choice. This system more accurately targets the student’s choice for the student council. Instead of voting for just one candidate, a voter would rank them in preference. Therefore, if a voter’s first choice for office has no chance of attaining a majority of the vote, the voter’s second choice would receive the vote. This style of voting system would especially attract young voters, giving them reassurance that their vote will not be wasted if they don’t initially vote with a mainstream political candidate or party. This ensures limited cases of vote boycotts as the outcome remains unpredictable.
Proportional representation makes elections more exciting to the electorate because their voice and vote will make a difference. For example, a 50/ 50 gender representation in student elections encourages both men and women to vote; everyone would be fairly represented according to his or her vote. A system of unequal representation has mainly sidelined women.
Political conscience is important and institutions should provide credible platforms that allows issue-based campaigns and ideology based campaigns to take center stage during election period so that the electorate make informed decisions in the ballot box. There is need to aim for 100 percent voter turnout to avoid situations where politicians generate benefits for those who vote, and mostly ignore those who don’t. Strong media coverage and public debate provide the best means to distinguish between candidates. Both campus print and broadcasting media should contribute free airtime to every student political candidate.
The more the rise in voter turnouts and youth participation in student representative council (SRC) elections, the more representative the council is of the people. So many political, academic, social, economic and technological issues affect students, yet a few cast votes thereby surrendering power and overall decision making to a small student segment throughout the academic year.
If only the middle – and upper- income students turn out at the polls, student politicians can concentrate on the issues pertaining to that group of people. Lower – income and working- class student views will be trashed. Implementation of programs such as internet voting, better voter education, and an election day holiday are necessary to fight voter apathy. Other notable point, although debatable is making voting compulsory, which has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Last but not least, there should be more secure polling stations.
Crispen Rateiwa is the chairperson of College Youth Art Club and president of Democratic Alliance for Academic (DAA). He is a publishing studies student at National University of Science and Technology. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org. This article only focuses on student elections in tertiary institutions. You can read more articles by him on ayaasite.wordpress.com