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September 18, 2006 | by  | in News |
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The Bureaucracy of Democracy

VUWSA elections have not exactly been rare this year, and, unfortunately, neither have problems stemming from the newly-implemented voting system. On the eve of another election, the question begs, will everyone be able to vote?

Earlier in the year VUWSA changed the system by which students voted in exec elections. In previous years, the Returns Officers had to advertise the elections as much as possible, cross the fingers on both their hands and hope that students were motivated enough to find their way to the VUWSA website and vote.

In last year’s election, less than 1000 people voted.

This year, some bright spark came up with a great idea to increase voter turnout. In the by-election that took place in May, emails were sent out to student email addresses with the link to the voting website. The improvement was almost instantaneous, almost 600 people ended up casting a vote in an election where most candidates were up against no confidence.

There was, however, a hitch. In 2003 the University had an overhaul of the student email system, changing student email addresses from scs.vuw.ac.nz to student.vuw.ac.nz. For some reason students who enrolled in 2003 or earlier, those with the old style addresses, did not receive the email.

After a few days of confusion, a partial solution was found. Post-graduates who wanted to vote in the by-election had to go to the VUWSA office and leave their name and email addresses with the receptionist, who would then pass it on the the Returns Officer Ryan Bridge, who would make sure the email was sent out. Angry students emailed Salient and the term “disenfranchisement” was bandied about with almost Florida-esque abandon.

In the view of Graeme Whimp from the Post-Graduate Student’s Association (PGSA), disenfranchisement is the correct term for what happened to post-grads. He says he found the “extra obstacles for student participation deeply disappointing”. Furthermore, he says that when he brought it up with VUWSA President Nick Kelly and Bridge, he “got nowhere”.

For Bridge, the problems faced by postgrads were a minor issue in comparison to the increased voter turnout. He describes the issue as “just one of those things”, and says there could have been a better solution had the resources been available. “It would involve going through and changing 3000 email addresses, and basically I’m not getting paid to do it. So, I’m not going to bother.”

Instead, for this year’s general election, physical polling booths have been set up for post-grads to use, a suggestion made by the VUWSA election committee after an official complaint was made.

But, as former Returns Officer and Political Science Honours student Greg Stephens says “post-grad students are probably the least aware of VUWSA events, due to work pressures and the lack of advertising. And if there is little advertising, what are you supposed to do if you do not get the email?” Arguably, without having that email in their inbox, some students might not even know the election was occurring.

But there is another solution, and it has been sitting right in front of VUWSA’s nose for a number of months. For the recent SPAM survey, VUWSA sent out invitation emails to just over 16,000 students at their personal email addresses, those provided to the University by students themselves. Not only would this allow post-grads to receive the email, it may also increase the number of people voting. Almost 3000 people clicked on the link to fill out the survey, a result that so far has only been the stuff of Returns Officer’s wildest dreams.

Des Kelly, Functional Services Manager for the University, explains how the system works: “[Bridge] tells us when he needs the information and we just put a report essentially of all enrolled students and their email addresses and date of birth, and we send that off straight to [the website company].” And would it be difficult to do? “We can provide either, or both. It makes no difference to us”.

The flaw in the plan is this: some email addresses might bounce back because students have not updated them. However, Kelly estimates that in a mail out of 5,000-10,000 students, the bounce back would be 300 at the highest. You do the math.

As a result of Salient’s investigation we understand that both personal and student email addresses be used in this round of elections. .

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

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