From My Perspective – Election Thoughts

A considerable amount of my time and energy has been spent since December ensuring that the AUSU election process ran smoothly and in accordance with policy. This was no small task. Although I had been through the election process before, this time was significantly different, for two reasons. First, the last election two years ago ended in an election by acclamation. Election notices had already gone out and a CRO hired, but a few weeks before ballots were to be cast, a candidate dropped out, leaving only nine candidates for nine positions. The second reason was that, for the first time in AUSU history, this election was held electronically, with voters casting online ballots instead of mail-in ones. To voters, the system may have seemed simple and streamlined – but a significant amount of work went on behind the scenes to make that happen. The system had to be designed and tested, policies were adjusted accordingly, and students were notified of the new process. For the first time, opportunities were arranged to have “live” candidate chats, and each candidate was provided their own webpage where they could post their platform. During the weeks leading up to the online ballot, we repeatedly reviewed and tested every aspect of the system to ensure that it was tamper-proof and secure. The online voting project was in the works for a long time, and we were very pleased with how smoothly it all went.

After receiving the results of the election from this year’s CRO, however, I was struck by the notion that fewer than 90 students had elected the new Council of nine. Some were elected to a Council position with as few as 48 votes, out of a student body of more than 30,000 (32,108 as of March 1, 2004) members!

As one of those on Council who ran for the 2002 election, it has always bothered me to hear individuals falsely imply that we were not democratically elected by the student body (Voice, Letters to the Editor, January 14/04 (http://www.ausu.org/voice/archives/articledisplay.php?ART=2463&issuesearch=1202)). In fact, democracy refers to a system whereby government operates by the will of the people. In the 2002 election, the democratic process was followed, just as it was in the 2004 election. In the 2002 election, however, the nine members were democratically elected by acclamation, while in the 2004 election, the nine members were democratically elected by 87 student voters. Its interesting to note the dictionary definition of acclamation: “1. A loud eager expression of approval, praise or assent. 2. an overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause, rather than by ballot” (Merriam-Websters College Dictionary, 1998).

Where I believe the process of democracy could potentially fall short with AUSU is in the system of appointing replacement Councillors part way through term. It is still a democratic process, since it is done according to policy, and enacted by elected councillors; and to the best of my knowledge, replacement Council members have always been added responsibly by AUSU. But it is a process that could be open to manipulation; unlike the vote system. AUSU currently does not have a procedure for by-elections, and this is something that is being considered for upcoming years. Something to think about, however, is – if so few students vote for the election itself, is it meaningful to go through a time-consuming and expensive process of by-elections to fill a few empty positions on Council? Or is it better to continue to rely on the judgement of the elected Councillors to fill the positions mid-term on an as-needed basis?

This brings me to what is probably the whole point of this article – the notion of reliance on the judgement of elected Councillors, and how this relates to the low election turnout. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first – one of my pet projects on Council has been the writing of a history of AUSU. As projects go, this one has remained rather low priority, and I haven’t made a lot of progress. But its an interesting one. Since its development in 1992, AUSU has had seven elections, and in every case, the new group of elected councillors has not remained intact for more than a year, necessitating the addition of new members partway through. Most student unions run yearly terms. AUSU, because of its very different nature, and for very valid reasons, chose to make terms two years in length. This may be something future Councillors will want to change, and in fact the newly-approved bylaws now allow for an early election to be called. This means that if Council ever again loses a significant number of members, a new election can be held before the two years are up.

The reality of AUSU is that people often do find it impossible to complete their terms. It’s a lot more work than most expect it to be, and finding time in our busy lives is challenging enough already. I have great admiration for those students who put their names forward for nomination, since I know very well what a huge commitment and sacrifice it requires.

My name was not among the 2004 nominees for two reasons. First, the elections were called under our old bylaws, so I (along with VP Shirley Barg) was not eligible to run again, having completed one full and one partial term. The new bylaws place no term limits, but even though the bylaws were approved at an AGM last May, Alberta Corporate Registries required several revisions, necessitating two more special general meetings. The bylaws were finally approved by Corporate Registries a few weeks after the election deadline for nomination had passed (as a side note, we no longer have to go through this process, since the new regulations surrounding Bill 43 remove AUSU from incorporation as a society).

However, even had the new bylaws been approved in time, my name would not have been among the candidates. It was not just because I’ve moved into graduate studies – since I am still taking some undergrad courses and could have remained involved. It was also not just because I was finding that my responsibilities as AUSU president have been exhausting, and discouraging at times. The positives have outweighed the negatives. It was because I feel there is a time when you need to move on. I’m very pleased and satisfied with what I’ve managed to accomplish during my time on Council, but I feel I can do far more for students by moving forward, taking on new and different projects, and passing on the “torch” of AUSU to a new group of students.

At the most recent meeting of the Athabasca University Governing Council, AU President Dominique Abrioux commented on the AUSU report that I, as president, submit regularly to AUGC. The report contained the election results, and Dominique said that he had been with the university since the inception and development of AUSU in 1992 – and he could confidently state that never before in the history of AUSU had the student union been handed over to a newly-elected group in such a well-run, stable, and powerful condition. He publicly thanked me for my leadership role in making the union what it is today, adding that the university benefits immeasurably from having a strong student union. I was very pleased to receive such an accolade, and I give credit to not only my colleagues on AUSU who have worked so hard over these past few years to make the organization the strong entity it has finally become, but also to those students who struggled at the beginning to create a student union in the first place.

So this brings me back to the topic of the low election turnout. As Editor Tamra Ross Low commented last week, this could be attributed to several things. Not knowing enough about the candidates is one – this is common to any election, and is a very valid reason to not cast a ballot. The nature of our student body is another, and I’ll comment on that in a moment. Ross Low also suggested that low voter turnout could mean people are happy with the services the student union has been providing, since “people who are angry are often people who vote,” seeking a change in a government they dislike (I can hardly wait to see how this plays out with the Federal Liberal party!)

In the process of researching the AUSU history, I came across a file with some letters to the AUSU Communications Coordinator. These were written in response to the elections of 1998, and an article written by then-editor Karen Mizeri, entitled “Apathy Wins.” The article apparently inspired some passionate responses from students who were quite angry at being blamed for what some of them termed “AUSU organizational problems.” One made the comment that they were “less than pleased” to hear students being accused of lethargy and apathy, adding that as a student working full time, bringing up two children, and studying for a degree – they were not exactly apathetic or lethargic. Others reminded the editor that she needed to remember that Athabasca University is by “NO stretch of the imagination a conventional university” and that this should be kept in mind when attempting to “reduce apathy and raise interest.” Another berated AUSU for “taking the easy way out” by saying students don’t care. One letter was outstanding in its use of irony and sarcasm. The writer stated that, “even as I write this letter, I wonder if it is worth my time.” She goes on to list assignments to finish, business plans on the go, income tax returns to complete by April 30th, and a busy family life, as reasons why she did not take time to return her mail-in ballot. This same student makes an important observation about student feedback and the university, commenting that AU should never assume tacit approval just because they do not hear an opinion – adding that for every opinion stated, at least 100 individuals likely support it (something to consider when looking at the validity of the AUSU online polls).

What I found most interesting, however, was a concluding comment by one student who stated that “regardless of the number of votes with which our executive was elected, it still represents the entire AU student body.” This is a concept that some on AUSU Council struggle with, and a few members take it to the extreme, feeling that unless they have a referendum on every issue, they cannot act for students. This is nonsense, in my opinion. As an elected representative – our job is to act for students in the best way we possibly can. To “represent,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, is to “serve in a legislative body by delegated authority usually resulting from election,” “to act in the place of or for another person by legal right.” We are here to represent AU students, to act and make decisions on their behalf. Certainly we want to attempt to get student feedback on matters to ensure that we are always “in touch,” but ultimately we have been elected because students want us to do the job of representation for them.

I’ve always stated that AU students are not apathetic, they are busy. I’ve always believed that the majority care about what AUSU is doing, but they are happy to have us do the work for them on their behalf. I think the election results bear that out. More students tested the system than those who voted. This shows an interest in ensuring that the election would be run correctly, but also a confidence that it would do so without needing individual student input.

For me, an important lesson learned in this election process was that students really are paying attention and are aware of what is going on. If, as a body, they felt their student fees were being wasted, they would have turned out in droves to remove incumbents on Council. Instead every one was re-elected, with the two longest-term Councillors among those receiving the highest number of votes.

AUSU Council is poised on the threshold of many new ventures. I’ve tried to encourage forward-looking thinking during my term. Rather than looking at what other student unions do, I’d like to see AUSU forge the way. We are different, we are students with life experience and knowledge, students who see things in a very different way than those on campus who are fresh out of high school. We may share their student experience in many ways, but we are the ones who should be taking the lead in improving that experience, since we speak not only for ourselves but for our children (and grandchildren!). We are the taxpayers who exercise our vote, and we are the ones who have the power to make a difference.

I congratulate the nine who have been newly-elected to council, and I look forward to seeing the direction they take AUSU Council. For the first time in history we have a strong Eastern Canada representation, and this is wonderful to see, since non-Alberta students comprise the majority of our membership. Perhaps this will allow a greater focus to be placed on Federal lobbying, so that Canada’s Open University does not have to rely solely on the Alberta government who have shown a glaring lack of support for post secondary education.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank those who put their name forward for nomination. I’d also like to thank the students who did vote. And I would like to thank the students who have given AUSU council their tacit approval and confidence in our ability to represent them; students who will speak up when they see something they don’t like, but who do not try and make our job even more difficult and time-consuming by harassing us with negative personal agendas that hamper our ability to work effectively on behalf of students. Being an AUSU Councillor is extremely hard work, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the nine people who have taken this task on.

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