For as long as I can remember, politicians and decision makers have been bemoaning the “fact” that students are apathetic, pointing out how few of us exercise our right to vote in general or local elections. SUs have always argued back that if only politicians addressed our issues, we might take note- but it never seemed to happen.
Until this year. Shortly after Theresa May’s snap election was called, SUs across the country did what they’ve been doing since 2014- running campaigns to get students to register to vote. In UEA’s case my predecessor Amy led a team of staff and volunteers to encourage students to vote and we know that our efforts added hundreds to the register in the run up to the deadline- a story repeated in Uni towns across the UK.
It wasn’t always this way. Until 2014 the UK had a system that registered voters by households- meaning that students in halls and students that had registered to be exempt from their council tax bill were already covered. This meant that SUs could spend their time and resources on pushing candidates to make commitments (like the famous Nick Clegg pledge of 2010).
But despite warnings that the transient nature of student living would disenfranchise millions, the Tory led coalition pressed ahead with IER anyway- with estimates produced in 2016 that up to 800,000 people were missing from the register- with students in university towns at highest risk of being disenfranchised. No wonder SUs have stopped focussing on issues and have instead shifted to getting students to register to vote in the first place.
Despite this, students did turn out in this election- and in huge numbers. Multiple press reports and research studies suggest it was students that made the difference in several constituencies around the UK- long queues were reported on here on campus, but the impact was most famously felt in Canterbury, where the sitting MP Julian Brazier was unseated. “At the polling station on campus, there were queues out of the door all day,” says Conor Fitzmaurice, who went knocking on doors at the University of Kent. Hannah Marendziuk-Uglow, a solicitor who works at the Kent Law Clinic on campus, confirmed this: “I sat in my office on election day watching the queues to vote. It was obvious something big was happening”.
Cue outrage. First a councillor in Plymouth (where students also had a big impact) suggested that students should not be allowed to vote in their University town. “Local people feel disenfranchised by this large number of transient voters… a far more equitable system would be to stipulate students should only be permitted to register as postal voters in their home constituencies”. This willingness to describe students as the “other” in a local community is outrageous- but the story has now taken a more insidious turn.
“Thousands of students may have voted TWICE for Jeremy Corbyn in General Election”, says the Sun. Buried in the article it makes clear that The Electoral Commission, which oversees elections had “no evidence of widespread abuse” but the damage is done- not only should students vote at “home”, regulation must be introduced to stop double voting, because The Sun and the The Mail say so.
There is some good news. Here at the SU we’ve been pushing for the University and the Council to work together so that when you enrol or re-enrol, you can opt to automatically register to vote at the same time. And it’s going to happen- from this September. This is a big step forward and will mean when another election is called or local election held, the SU can focus its time on candidates, commitments and issues that matter to students.
Our message to politicians is clear. Repeated attempts to ignore or silence the voices of students won’t work. Whichever party you’re in, you’d be better off developing policies that address our interests and issues than spending your time trying to stop us from voting.