The Perennial Problem of Referendum Apathy

 
 

Matthew Hanrahan looks for the root causes of UCD’s apathy towards campus referenda.


IN conjunction with the sabbatical election, UCD Students’ Union held referenda to decide its position on two issues: the first relating to the fees that the SU should lobby for and a second on whether the Student’s Union should lobby for a United Ireland.

In the first case, 54% of students voted for the SU to fight for significantly lower fees, with a further 28% voting for current fees and 19% voting for income-based loans. Simultaneously, in the other referendum, 63% of students voted for the SU to take a stance in favour of a United Ireland with the remaining 37% voting against such a stance.

However, many were not aware that the referenda were taking place and others weren’t clear of the reasons they should vote one way or another, in either case. Fourth year Law student Ause Abdelhaq said “I had a vague idea that the unity referendum was happening, but that’s only because it seemed like a bit of a novelty. I didn’t find out about the fees referendum until the day of the elections.”

“I didn’t find out about the fees referendum until the day of the elections”

According to Education officer, Lexi Kilmartin “a lot of people saw [the United Ireland] referendum as a bit of a joke and a laugh rather than setting the stance of the biggest single Students’ Union in the country.” On the other hand, UCD for Unity campaigner, Ryan Brogan, disagrees, saying “many students were at least partially tuned into the issue and have at least a fair idea of a United Ireland and what it would entail prior to this referendum”.

Evidence for this goes beyond the anecdotal. In comparison to the last referendum campaign on whether the SU should adopt a neutral stance on repealing the 8th, the social media engagement was lower. The “UCD Vote Yes for Neutral” Page garnered 451 likes, while the “UCD for Choice” page, which supports the unions’ mandate on repeal, received 1057 likes.

By comparison in the Unity referendum, Brogan points out that “UCDForUnity” “got over 550 likes in about two weeks.” There was no official campaign or social media presence for an opposition. Brogan contests the idea that there was lower engagement. “We were not aware that we had a lower engagement rate than previous referenda campaigns,” he said. “On some of our Facebook posts, for example, we had over 1,000 engagements, with over 8,000 being the highest. […] We also have over 200 followers on Twitter, although this could be improved.”

“We need to tell the students that the referenda are happening and when it’s happening”

A satirical opposition page, “UCD For UK” was set up, and received 51 likes. According to a post on the UCD For UK page, it emerged “out of frustration with the vague, unsupported claims of the UCD For Unity campaign, as well as the attitude of the United Ireland movement in general.” On the issue of student fees there was no social media presence advocating any option. While social media engagement is an imperfect barometer for wider engagement, it is certainly at least a partial reflection of lack of information and discussion around the issues in these two votes.

What role does the SU itself play in referenda however? Kilmartin feels the role of the SU is “to promote that referenda are happening, as the SU, we need to tell the students that the referenda is happening and when it’s happening.” Beyond that the difficulty of the position of the SU is that they cannot advocate for any position in a referendum. “It’s a bit of a tricky one because in a way we should be providing the information but in another way we can’t […] so we did a bit of an information campaign through an e-mail, and we also put in a lot of time and effort explaining it to class reps so they could explain it to their classes.”

The root of the problem according to Fionnán Long, a volunteer for the No to USI campaign, is “the constitutional procedure to initiate referenda.” Article 6 of the UCD Students’ Union constitution outlines that a referendum must be held 14 to 28 days after the Returning Office receives a petition of more than 3.5% of the student body.

“It’s a difficult line to tow and we need to be completely impartial in the referenda”

Brogan agrees that this might have been a problem surrounding the Unity referendum as “most students knew what they were voting for, although [there could have been] greater awareness […] through meaningful debate and discussion, which may have materialised if there had been a bit more time and an organised opposition campaign.” Long also feels that this short notice period potentially “allows stealth campaigns” to take place.

The sentiment overall, is that the operation of referenda are fair – according to Long “UCD referenda are very fairly administered – campaign funding, expenditure caps and [the] professionalism of returning office staff are fantastic.” On whether another body needs to be established to provide information about referenda, people have mixed feelings. Long feels that “an independent body would be great if it could be truly independent.” Kilmartin points out that “the difficulty with running a large scale campaign is people start crying bias if you start giving out information […] it’s a difficult line to tow and we need to be completely impartial in the referenda.”

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