If the past month has taught us anything, it is that referendums sometimes raise more questions than they answer. This week UCD students will have the opportunity to vote in two UCDSU referendums of our own, one of which raises significant questions about the SU’s position within the student body.

UCD Student’s Union, at an emergency SU Council meeting, recently approved holding two referendums to amend the UCDSU Constitution. The first proposed amendment, if passed, will see the election of class representatives moved to the last four weeks of the spring trimester, allowing for class reps to be elected prior to the SU’s term beginning in the following academic year. This proposed amendment is largely unproblematic. It is a practical change and will likely help the SU better hit the ground running at the start of the academic year.

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UCDSU ballot election

In the other referendum, students will have the opportunity to vote on a proposal to alter Article 6.7.1 of the UCDSU Constitution in order to lower the minimum voter turnout required for a constitutional referendum to be valid. Currently, 12.5% of the student population must cast a valid vote for a referendum to have effect. The proposal is to lower this threshold to 10% of the student population. It is this proposed amendment which raises questions of the SU.

It is difficult to view this proposed amendment as anything other than a damning indictment of the SU’s position within the student body. The SU has, for a number of years, had a significant engagement issue and the proposed amendment represents the SU’s acknowledgement and, more importantly, its acceptance of this.

UCDSU Apathy – Some Numbers

Looking at the voter turnout rates in recent SU elections and referendums a recurring theme is present – apathy. UCD, it is worth remembering, is the largest university in Ireland with over 35,000 students. However, in 2019, just 4,067 valid votes were cast in the SU Presidential election. In 2020, just 975 students – less than 4% of the student population – voted in the sabbatical officer elections. 2020 was, of course, an exceptional year in many respects and that year’s SU elections, the first to be held online, suffered from technical issues. However, even with the exceptional circumstances in mind, a voter turnout of less than 4% is incredibly low.

In 2021, voter turnout improved on the previous year’s but failed to reach pre-pandemic levels, with 2,075 votes cast in the SU Presidential election. In 2022, five out of the six sabbatical officer elections were uncontested, leading to the infamous RON campaign which saw students vote to re-open nominations in all of the 5 uncontested races. Even that year, when interest in SU politics was piqued by the RON campaign, just 1,711 valid votes were cast in the Presidential election. In the subsequent by-election, that number fell to 1,542.

For comparison, in that year’s election for Trinity College Student Union President 2,159 valid votes were cast, despite Trinity having around half the student population of UCD. Similarly, in last year’s elections, just 2,042 valid votes were cast in the uncontested Presidential race.

pwo and tcdsu presidents
PWO and TCDSU Presidents together at a PWO protest

In April 2023, the SU held two referendums, one on USI membership and the other on amending the nomination process for SU elections. Both referendums failed to meet the required voter turnout thresholds. In fact, the referendum on USI membership, as it was not a constitutional referendum, had a minimum voter turnout requirement of 10%. It still failed on turnout. Only 1,792 valid votes were cast.

The Proposed UCDSU Amendment

There are, of course, valid arguments as to why having a minimum voter turnout threshold for referendums is a bad idea. Minimum voter turnout requirements are, at least in theory, susceptible to abuse. For example, an individual campaigning against a given referendum proposal may, as a result of a minimum voter threshold, be better off not voting than casting their vote against the proposal. Such a scenario is far from ideal.

However, can the SU honestly say that this is the motive behind the proposed amendment? It would, I think, be quite a reach for the SU to try to put low voter turnout in past referendums down to some tactical decision on the part of those opposing any given proposed amendment. As the figures above illustrate, SU election engagement took a significant hit as a result of the pandemic (not that turnout was in any way stellar prior to the pandemic) and has never fully recovered. The move to lower the voter requirement threshold for referendums should be seen for what it is – the SU’s acknowledgement and, more concerningly, acceptance of the Union’s engagement issues.

It is undoubtedly easier to lower the required turnout for constitutional amendments than to address the SU’s engagement problem, but should we, the SU’s members, not expect more of the SU than to take the easy way out?

The “Who We Are” section of UCDSU’s website states that the SU has “almost half a century of advocating on behalf of generations of UCD students and fighting to defend their interests, both on-campus and in wider society” and that it communicates the “unfettered student voice through our democratically elected Officers”.

What does it say about the UCDSU’s mandate to communicate “the unfettered student voice” to University authorities when the SU itself acknowledges that it cannot get 12.5% of the student population – just one in every eight students – to be engaged enough in SU affairs that they vote in constitutional referendums? One would think that a 12.5% voter turnout should not be an insurmountable obstacle for a body which claims to be “omnipresent in the lives of UCD students”.

Put another way, a 10% voter turnout requirement represents the SU’s effective acknowledgement of the fact that 90% of the student body that it claims to represent is completely disinterested in SU affairs. Can the SU really claim to be a representative body when that is the case?

What Next?

What then should students do? I think the answer is clear – vote NO. The onus of addressing the SU’s engagement issue lies firmly on the SU itself. It is an issue that the SU has to address if it is to have any semblance of a mandate to represent student interests moving forward.

The most embarrassing outcome from the SU’s perspective, and arguably the most likely, is that the referendum to lower the turnout required for a referendum to pass fails because it does not meet the current threshold required. If this comes to pass, it begs the question: what next for the SU? Is the SU going to address its persistent engagement issues or will it be left with a Constitution which is practically unalterable?

Mark O’Rourke – Features Editor