Election turnout: ‘It’s not going to get any better’
Perhaps it was the rain. Perhaps it was the lack of educational matters in the national news. Or perhaps it was the fact that students simply do not know what the University Council is. The fact of the matter is that the turnout for the elections was yet again disappointing, more so than in previous years. Typically, around 30 per cent of students make an effort to vote for a student party, but this year, that figure stalled out at 27.9 per cent.
And in spite of that, Groningen still does well, relatively speaking. In Tilburg, 50 per cent of students turned out for the elections and in Delft, 40 per cent of students take advantage of their right vote. But these are the exception. At the other universities, the number of students voting is dramatically low: in Leiden, Rotterdam and Utrecht, the percentage of students voting does not exceed 20 per cent. This year at the VU Amsterdam, the elections for the central student council were ultimately cancelled due to lack of candidates.
‘It doesn’t matter’
‘In that regard, we don’t do too badly. In the cities where they are shouting from the rooftops about democracy, less people turn up’, says Bart Beijer, president of the Personnel faction.
But he does have to admit that the turnout was far from ideal. ‘It seems that they may not see the importance of it. Maybe students feel that all of it does not really matter and that the parties are all more or less the same’, he says. It does not surprise political scientist Simon Otjes at all. ‘The turnout for elections for councils whose purpose is not well understood is generally low. People only vote if they think that their vote can make a difference and things can be changed’, he says.
‘People don’t know what the faculty councils and the University Council do’, says Mathieu Paapst of the Science faction. ‘That is a problem that exists not only here, but also in the European Parliament and the water board elections. And a large proportion of the people are also just not interested. They think: ‘It’s going alright, isn’t it? As long as everything is under control, everyone is happy and you don’t hear from them.’
Traditional elections only work if they satisfy three conditions, says Otjes. ‘Are students basing their votes on a programme? Or do personal contacts matter more when voting for a candidate? Are the programmes of the parties really different? I have not done any research on it, but I think that the difference is smaller than that of the House of Representatives elections. Can the parties execute the programmes? You can very well call for the University Library (UB) to be open 24 hours a day, but the University Council has limited influence.’
‘The threshold is too high’
Either way, the current model is not working, feels former president of the University Council Hilly Mast. ‘When the RUG switched from paper ballots to digital votes, the election turnout plummeted by more than 10 per cent! We went from around 45 per cent to 30. That is a huge blow and we have never recovered from it.’
According to Mast, the university has to better facilitate the digital voting. ‘Put polling booths everywhere and get students to stand at the entrances with iPads. The threshold is too high by having to go to a website.’
But there is more at hand, she thinks. Students believe that they have little influence, because they can see that the University Boards marginalise the role of the student-staff participation, she says. ‘And I have noticed that students are seen more as consumers. The programmes are not about education and research, but about the opening times of the UB. Consequently, students may not see the importance of voting anymore. And owing to the large scale of the education here, there is less of a ‘we’ feeling, which means that participation at the RUG diminishes.’
Alternatives aren’t any better
Is there then any point in organising an election? Another method won’t lead to better results in terms of turnout; this is something everyone we spoke with agrees on. What’s more, the University Board fully believes democracy is working. ‘The cooperation with the University Council is going well, thus the Executive Board has no reason to say it should changed. It is important that the students are well represented, of course. Their stance is: if you want to join the conversation, you have to vote’, says spokesperson Gernant Deekens.
Other forms of democracy are also difficult, Paapst thinks. ‘You could separate the students and personnel members in a staff council and a student council. But I know from experience that it is difficult to get people to join a staff council, let alone want to vote.’
Otjes is aware that municipalities experiment with lotteries or selection of representatives via a sample. ‘G1000 (whereby citizens discuss their city, red.) is very popular, for example.’ But that is also not something which will lead to a better turnout, he fears.
‘Nobody turned up’
The Personnel faction has ideas about how it could be different. ‘You can get people involved more topically. Instead of letting a faction work themselves to death on every issue for two years, interest groups could have their say. That is something that we do as a party, but on a smaller scale. We have also held open office hours, but almost no one came’, says Beijer.
Last year the turnout was somewhat higher, probably because of the occupation of the Maagdenhuis. Beijer: ‘Back then, you still had ReThink and The New University. But what do they do with the elections? Do they run for office? It seems as though the whole movement has collapsed like a fallen soufflé.’
There is simply no easy solution to be found for the low turnout, it seems: everyone just has to make do with how it is now. ‘Next year, we will work just as hard’, concludes Beijer.