Those elected to sabbatical positions of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) this time last year could not have even begun to predict the level of disruption that would come to define their term in office. As we approach the end of it, new elections loom, and the setting in which students will cast their ballots is like no other in the Union’s history.
“Typically, the college is abuzz with campaigners trying to get their candidate’s message out to the student body, with posters adorning every corner of campus.”
With all on campus activity halted until at least the beginning of the next academic year, the campaigns run by those who choose to run will have to be 100% online. Typically, the college is abuzz with campaigners trying to get their candidate’s message out to the student body, with posters adorning every corner of campus. In student accommodation, supporters of each candidate would go door to door, much like in a general election, with political party advocates. Of course, with the current government regulations in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reached its worst point so far since it’s arrival into this country nearly a year ago, all of this will be completely impossible.
How, then, will these candidates go about getting their names into the general student consciousness? It may be possible to gain further insight by looking at another section of college life that has had to drastically change its approach to student engagement due to the national restrictions: the College’s societies. Any other year, a society’s calendar would be chock full of in-person events, from debates, to talks, to the auspicious annual balls. But, all of this has had to shift focus to a digital format, and the migration has taken its toll on student engagement, a key issue that any SU candidate will have to keep in mind.
I asked Joe Coughlan, the Chair of TrinityFM, for his views on how societies have had to adjust to this new structure of things. “Keeping students engaged has been an uphill battle this year from the start,” he said, which does not bode well for those attempting to win over a large portion of the student electorate. The Chair went on to say “some societies have found alternative methods such as livestreams and Discord servers for hosting their events. These measures have had variable degrees of success.” Such methods of campaigning may seem enticing to prospective candidates, but the issue of engagement must be front and centre in this election cycle.
“It is no longer possible to simply wait outside a lecture hall, and hand out pamphlets as hundreds of people stream past – students will have to want to learn more about these candidates.”
It is no longer possible to simply wait outside a lecture hall, and hand out pamphlets as hundreds of people stream past – students will have to want to learn more about these candidates. If all you have to bring to the table is a Discord event talking about policy, or a Zoom Q&A, it is going to prove a herculean task to reach a turnout acceptable for a campaign event.
Due to the prevalence of social media, the world is more connected than ever; over half of the global population is recorded as having at least one social media account as of 2020. However, engaging with people has become increasingly difficult during lockdown, with national governments starting campaigns explicitly encouraging the populace to stay in touch with one another, and to reach out to those they believe to be isolated. Word of mouth has always been an extremely important factor in SU elections, as the “friend of a friend” trope factors into many students’ votes – the known, however strenuous the connection, is always far easier to cast a vote for than the unknown. This trait is lost through the digital medium, and no matter the strength of the social media campaign, it can’t be truly replicated.
Despite the many issues that arise due to a lack of in-person campaigning, the logistical ones cannot be ignored. The fear of a digital election is twofold: the system itself failing in some way, or it being compromised. Technical errors have been, and most likely will be, rampant in such a system, but previous elections prove that the SU is capable of dealing with any issues that arise as a consequence of a computer glitch. For example, the Class Rep elections were held at the beginning of Michaelmas Term, and they were virtually seamless. Of course, there was the occasional hiccup, which included candidates not being listed, or links not working, but these issues were temporary, ultimately being resolved quickly after attention was brought to them. If this template is anything to base what the Sabbatical elections are going to be like, it does present an optimistic picture.
However, the issue of election safety is not one that lacks merit. On the one hand, it would be hoped that all candidates would run and act in good faith; on the other hand, it is not out of the question that a third party could interfere in the elections for reasons of their own (no reminders are needed of the havoc that was carried out at the Schols information evening at the end of November last year). This potential issue is, of course, fully hypothetical, and a robust enough system could prevent it – regardless, its possibility poses problems for the Union’s Electoral Commission.
“The very notion of getting the student population engaged in the campaigns is fraught with difficulty.”
Despite the current situation, the SU plans to soldier on with their Sabbatical elections this year, regardless of the less than ideal circumstances. These elections often provide a platform for candidates to demonstrate their personality through their campaigns, giving them a chance to get their message out in new and unique ways. Never has that been more needed than this year, where the very notion of getting the student population engaged in the campaigns is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, these shall be SU Elections like no other.