From the Archives: Agonizing over Apathy

The voting period is upon us. Two weeks ago, we looked at the efforts of the Gazette to combat voter apathy before elections. Last week we looked at a history of upstart outsider candidates who ran campaigns designed to rally students against apathy under the banner of reform and engagement. This week? Eighty years’ worth of DSU experts weigh in on why we are so damn apathetic.

If interested in playing a particularly depressing game while reading, go through the articles chronologically and watch as the definition of shameful apathy changes from 50 per cent voter turnout in the 1930s to 21 per cent in the mid-2000s. (Sink yet further into your chair when you realize that last year’s turnout was 10.8 per cent.)

“The Council Elections” – Volume 64, Issue 17 – March 9, 1932

Dalhousians will very shortly be called upon again to elect twelve of their number to the Students’ Council for 1932-3.

Every year, with hopeful regularity, the undergraduate body is urged to consider the matter thoughtfully, and with the same regularity, the admonition is blissfully ignored. Yet, despite the fact that all exhortation is likely to be in vain, we cannot forbear to reiterate the old old theme in two at least, of its aspects. In the first place, every’ student should regard it as his or her duty to vote; and in the second place, each person should attempt to do so in an intelligent manner. At the last elections, only about fifty percent of the undergraduates registered their will at the polls. How in the name of heaven can they expect to get first class administration, if they persist in displaying such apathy? To speak thus, is to case no innuendoes on the present Council; it merely casts, and is meant to cast innuendoes on the student body as a whole.

Moreover even among the votes that are registered, very few are carefully thought out. The weather-beaten cry of “popularity contest” is, alas, too true. Members are, unfortunately, often swept into office on the wave in their hair, rather than on the strength of able executive ability. If the students want good popular government, and not poor, popularity government, they would do well to think before they vote.

“We’re Sick and Tired” – Volume 91, Issue 17 – March 5, 1959

We’re sick and tired of talking about that poor, worn out word APATHY, just as sick of it as you must be reading about it. The problem is, its popularity is unquestionable. Everyone’s talking about it and so must we. Why?

The answer is simple. Apathy is the most widespread, contagious disease from which we all suffer.

One of the latest outbreaks of the epidemic was experienced during the recent campaign for campus elections. At the student forum, where the candidates present their platforms and are barraged with questions, only a few more than 200 students appeared. These filed in as quiet as mice, took their seats, clapped respectably when the unheralded candidates presented themselves, asked only a few uninspiring questions and filed meekly out again.

Not only the students but also the candidates are to blame. Where were the bands or student noisemakers, as the bands might better be termed), the parades, and the waving placards which add excitement’! Once the students are attracted and excited, controversial issues are bound to arise and be thrashed out between the candidates, leaving the student more capable of deciding where to make their “X”.

When it comes to election day, however, the students are entirely at fault. The figures are shocking.

Of a student population of 1683 only 873 voted, or a little more than 50 percent. In a case as bad as this, we are forced to write again about this dread disease, apathy. It must be cured, stamped out, for the health of the campus is at stake. Perhaps the Council should set up a booth where we may all go to be vaccinated in order to save our lives. The worst problem is that the disease has taken such a hold that probably only 50 percent of the students would tum up to be scratched and the rest would die. We might almost say good riddance… yes, we might at that.

“Non-election elections” – Tom Regan – Volume 112, Issue 19 – Feb 14, 1980

Gil Whitehouse, chief electoral officer for the Dalhousie Student Union expressed his disappointment at the large number of acclamations to next year’s council during the student council meeting held on Sunday night.

Whitehouse told council there were a ”horrendous number of acclamations”. He said there had been years in the past when it had been hard to find people to run for council but that this was the worst that he had ever seen.

The elections, which will be held on February 20th, will have actual races in only three areas. Positions to be decided on the 20th will be president and vice-president, the Board of Governors representative and a Gazette Publishing Board representative. All five positions in the senate, the law representative, both arts positions, all three science reps and the representatives of commerce, engineering and health were declared elected by acclamation.

Council was also informed by the presidential team of Jim Enman and Brad Wicks that they have no intention of showing up for any of the presidential forums to be held before the election. Enman told council that he and Wicks are not running a serious campaign to get elected but are running as a protest team against the apathy shown by students at Dalhousie.

The announcement, which virtually assures Gord Owen and Jeff Champion of victory in the presidential race was greeted with laughter by most council members. Several council members said it was time to take a new look at the constitution and the running of student elections. Whitehouse said this would be an excellent idea and it would help avoid council elections from becoming ‘joke’ elections in the future.

Whitehouse is still hoping for a turnout of 30% for this year’s election.

“Failed Candidates Can Only Blame Themselves” – Mike Smit – Volume 139, Issue 26 – March 29, 2007

Students have spoken – well, 21 per cent of them – and the DSU has a new executive.

Mike Tipping, Rosalie Hanlon, Tara Gault and Courtney Larkin take office on May 1, alongside a yet to be appointed vice president (finance and operations).

DalOUT finally won its levy (third time’s the charm), and WUSC tagged along for the ride. And the DSU has a shiny new (err … recycled) sustainability office. It should be an exciting year for the DSU.

Excitement is good, because the election itself was completely unremarkable. Perhaps the most noteworthy news is that no one has challenged the results, which is not something we’ve taken for granted in recent DSU elections history.

There were moments of drama and, as usual, a few candidates evoked a good laugh. But there was no epic battle of the well-qualified titans, no struggle of “good” versus “evil,” no power struggle between several strong leaders.

There were just a bunch of people who wanted to be elected.

I hoped online campaigning would allow candidates to give me more to be excited about, but was disappointed.

Only eight candidates bothered to create any kind of web presence outside of a “lol vote 4 me” Facebook group completely void of meaningful content.

I followed the election closely and gathered every detail I could. I visited Facebook groups and candidate websites several times a day. I had dozens of people e-mailing me information and updates, I offered opinion polls and forums and I published five daily comments on anything remotely newsworthy.

Five days later, I can’t even remember all the candidates’ names.

It’s not that they were egregiously bad candidates – I tend to remember those. They were just uninspiring. Unimpressive. Unoriginal. There were notable exceptions, as always, but in general I had to look hard to find interesting news to report.

I’m not alone in my general indifference. Compared to previous years, the spoiled ballot rates were quite high. And it’s even worse when you add in ballots that were left blank. The ballot for vice president (education) was left blank or intentionally spoiled by 28 per cent of all voters, with the other executive positions not far behind at 15 per cent, 20 per cent and 24 per cent.

Nearly 1,000 students looked at the two choices for that position and essentially said “No thanks” or “Oh, gotta run, Jericho is on.” It’s hard to get enthusiastic about an election when you’re voting for the lesser of “who cares.”

Of course, the untold story is of the nine candidates who won’t get a chance to battle the new self- appointed DSU watchdog, Gregory Debogorski, failed board of governors candidate. Fortunately for them, they have other options.

If they don’t want to worry about pesky things like voters or constituents, they can get themselves appointed to sit on the DSU’s board of operations. There they can form their very own two-year oligarchy, just like the Central Committee all the best Politburos had.

Unless, of course, they are computer science or engineering students, as co-op students need not apply. They’ll just have to get one of those summer jobs in Ontario our new vice president (education) promised us in her campaign. It’s cool – the DSU has always been Dalhousie’s arts and science society. I see no reason to kowtow to those pesky co-op students.

Getting back to the candidates, I have one message for you: better luck next time. Try to avoid running a campaign destined to fail. If you lost and are looking for someone to blame, you need only look as far as the nearest mirror. We didn’t set a record in terms of how far we lowered the bar, but we carne pretty damn close. If you couldn’t clear it, you can blame only yourself. Some factors that swing elections are out of your control, but the majority are completely up to you. It takes little effort to research the position you desire, meet with the current holder of the position, visit classrooms, post a website and craft a platform with interesting and relevant ideas.

You have voters and pundits alike who are begging to be excited, to be inspired, to have strong feelings about an election.

We’re tired of spoiling our ballots. Dalhousie students, if you’ve ever wanted to run for DSU office, now is the time to start. You have 11 months and three weeks to get ready to give the university something to be excited about.

Mike Smit is a Dalhousie graduate who has been involved with the DSU for over seven years. He developed the DSU’s online voting software and has provided technical support ever since. Smit’s website, MikeSmit.com, was a focal point of election commentary.

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John Hillman

John Hillman is the Gazette's Opinions Editor. John is a second-year law student, but he has been at Dalhousie for much longer than that. Recently discovered cave paintings indicate he was first observed lurching around campus by Halifax’s original human settlers some time during the late Pleistocene epoch. He started writing for the Gazette back when you were in elementary school, but he unexpectedly went off the grid a half-decade ago to concentrate on helping found Punditry.ca, a DSU-focused political blog. Where exactly was he hiding between the years 2009-2013? Certain individuals would prefer he not comment. Why has he returned? Not because of a top-secret Illuminati indoctrination project known only as the Omega Initiative, that’s for sure.

You can email John at opinions@dalgazette.com.

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