There’s value in abstaining

Abstention votes allow students to voice their opinions in campus elections without being forced to make uninformed or undesirable choices
Two scrutineers determine whether ballots are spoiled.
Two scrutineers determine whether ballots are spoiled. SOFIA LUDWIG/THE VARSITY

Tons of student elections occur around the end of the school year. It can be too much for even the most actively engaged students to handle.

Staying informed is an incredibly important aspect of a free and open democracy, and yet many students likely choose to stay out of elections because they feel that they don’t know enough to participate. Disillusionment with student politics has also contributed to low voter turnout.

Keeping track of candidate platforms and promises might also seem pointless in the face of an overwhelming number of due dates threatening precarious GPAs right before exam season. While elections can be a great opportunity to engage otherwise uninterested students in governance and to voice major student issues, the timing is unfortunate and may alienate all but those who are accustomed to keeping up with student politics.

Though it might be tempting to stay out of elections, most ballots offer up an important, impartial option: the abstention.

Voting ‘abstain’ lets politicians know that they have not done enough to win your support, and that you may not be entirely informed about their platforms. However, it also signifies that you are aware of the importance of the election, and more crucially, of your position and responsibility to keep these incoming elected officials in check.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the abstention vote is key to staying active in student politics at U of T. It signifies that you care about the campus’ welfare, but it relieves you from being forced to take sides. Unlike municipal, provincial, and federal elections, student politicians need not be bound to historical ideologies or traditions — their only definite quality is their assumed concern for student well-being and dedication to enriching student life, on and off campus.

No candidate can hope to form an ethereal, iconic image like that of Barack Obama — or even Rob Ford. Instead, many student politicians seem like helpful, non-partisan leaders who, if we are to assume the best of people, will generally try to work for the benefit of students.

At the same time, student politics can become divisive very quickly, and many want to stay out of the drama. Abstaining can be used to make a statement that the voter prefers no single candidate on the ballot, as opposed to being forced to play favourites.

‘Abstain’ votes can also be used to address issues with election turnout. Low voter turnout at U of T is often assumed to reflect the lack of interest in student politics on campus, but this is not necessarily true. It might just reflect that students are disinterested in individual candidates but remain aware of the operations of the entire body. Last year’s University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections saw a turnout of 11.8 per cent, but strong opinions on the UTSU’s Hudson settlement and vocal opposition to the proposed modification of the Vice-President University Affairs and Vice-President Equity positions show that many students are invested in UTSU affairs.

Alternatively, low polling numbers could actually reflect dissatisfaction with the system entirely. But if this is the case, then refraining from voting does not do an adequate job of communicating this message. It is difficult to distinguish between people who choose not to vote because they do not care and people who are opposed to the current state of affairs. Abstaining does the job of distinguishing between the two: voting ‘abstain’ means you care enough to go to the polls but cannot bring yourself to support any one of the options.

The message that ‘abstain’ votes send to the campus community is very important. Voting ‘abstain’ tells elected officials that the students who did not vote for them are watching and that indiscretions will not go unnoticed. Furthermore, it encourages candidates to more clearly define their platforms and intentions. Large numbers of abstentions would indicate to student politicians that there are lapses in their policies and engagement efforts that simply do not include or welcome all of their constituents, but that there is still continued interest in campus issues, even if students don’t have time to do the research.

If you feel confused or dissatisfied with your choices this election season, at least make it known by putting it on the record.

Angela Feng is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Anthropology and Cinema Studies. She is The Varsity’s Campus Politics Columnist.

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