Virtual student government elections offer a more accessible framework

As the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executive election campaign period takes off this week, this year’s candidates will migrate to virtual platforms and social media to campaign. Online elections present new challenges to student engagement and require innovative approaches to campaigning. But if harnessed properly, the remote circumstances could serve to expand election accessibility in the long term. SSMU can take this opportunity to reflect on the barriers of past elections and maintain the benefits of a virtual campaign period even after the pandemic. 

With Zoom fatigue worsening as the pandemic drags on, student leaders must think outside the box to engage students. Remote learning has made it more difficult than ever for students to remain connected to the community, ultimately decreasing their likelihood of participating in student politics. For instance, SSMU’s September 2020 special referendum saw a meager 12.8 per cent voter turnout, the lowest in five years. Engagement in this year’s election is of particular importance, considering McGill’s plans to return to in-person learning for the Fall 2021 semester, which will surely present unique obstacles for incoming representatives. 

To make better use of online tools, SSMU could help candidates reach more students by allowing them to campaign on more platforms, in line with the Science Undergraduate Society’s Feb. 17 decision to allow candidates to campaign beyond Facebook. Additionally, the implementation of online resources like recorded information sessions and condensed versions of official SSMU election documents could remove the red tape around running for a position. Reading through SSMU’s lengthy election bylaws is daunting––the Internal Regulations of Governance is 54 pages alone and is only one of five internal regulation documents candidates are charged with reviewing. Making condensed online materials available can encourage students to run for positions that may have otherwise intimidated them, promoting accessibility. 

Some of the potential advantages of this new format are already evident. For individuals who are well-suited to a role, but who may be uncomfortable approaching strangers in-person about their platforms, expanded online campaigning can facilitate community outreach. Online flexibility also allows candidates to diffuse their election platforms easily. While corruption regarding unsolicited online messaging has been a concern in the past, SSMU can create a more equitable legislative framework to facilitate online campaigning. For instance, election rules must be updated to eliminate hostile or exclusive environments, setting a positive precedent for years to come.

Despite the benefits of online platforms, the merits of in-person information dissemination about SSMU elections cannot be ignored. Candidates may have trouble reaching those to whom they have no prior connection, as their social media posts tend to be seen only by their friends. One possible solution is to require that all Facebook campaign pages link all the other candidate’s pages to ensure easy access to each platform. And although it appears unlikely that elections will take place entirely online past this exceptional year, virtual platforms like Gathertown and Glimpse that mimic in-person booths can further complement existing election norms. 

When students return to campus, SSMU must find ways to maintain the accessibility of this virtual election while transitioning back to in-person events. In-person campaigning techniques like handing out flyers and approaching people on campus are integral to the campaign process and should not be abandoned, but giving candidates more campaigning tools will improve engagement in student government. 

While many students will want to be rid of any reminders of life during the most isolated stages of the pandemic upon their return to campus, SSMU should think about how it can use lessons learned throughout this tumultuous year to make student politics more welcoming and engaging in years to come.  Despite the drawbacks, this new online experience will result in overdue technological updates to the in-person election regulations currently in place. SSMU’s mission statements enshrine accessibility for the diverse needs of students. Now that new campaigning options have been unearthed, SSMU can act on its mission by adjusting elections to be as equitable as possible. 

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