Monday, March 14, 2011

Student Council Elections

This past Friday, Burnett Secondary school had its Student Council speeches and elections for next year.  All students made their way to the cafeteria (different grades in different periods) to listen to the students who are running for positions on the Student Council Executive.  The speeches (24 of them for 6 different positions) are delivered to every student, whether they are interested in what the candidates have to say or not, and then all students are given a ballot to complete.  Candidates struggle with students not paying attention, sometimes the speeches sound eerily similar, and there is no opportunity to ask questions or engage in debates or discussions.

While I am pleased we have such an interest in student government, sadly, it seems more like a popularity contest, and in the end can result in people not feeling very good about themselves, their competitors or the process.  Most distressing is that it seems to brew "bad blood" in that with three excellent candidates running for Student Council President, only one can win.  All three candidates have indicated that if not successful in the competition, they may not serve on Student Council in any capacity, even though we try to encourage any unsuccessful candidates or others with interest to join the "Breaker crew" who assist the Executive with any activities the Student Council plans.

I question this process, wondering why we make ALL students come to listen to the speeches and make each individual vote.  In no other political venue is this the case.   Civic, Provincial and Federal elections all have opportunities for interested voters to listen to and ask questions of candidates, and voter turn out is not mandatory, in fact in many cases it is well below 40%.  While I can appreciate the value of giving students a chance for public speaking, the process at our school seems not to have changed much from the days depicted in the movie "Election" starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. 

In saying this, I am not being critical of  Student Council Sponsor, I am just looking for different ideas to share with the students regarding campaigning and voting.  Ideas that lead to all students feeling good about the process, learning about democracy and government, and resulting in good candidates being able to work together, regardless of the outcome.

I have looked on-line for processes used in schools around North America, and found some very descriptive rules and procedures, but nothing that seems to address how campaigning is done, when speeches are delivered and to whom, and what people have found voter turn-out to be. While I am sure there are great suggestions and practices out there, I have been unable to locate them.

Suggestions our Administrative team made to the Council members running the election included moving the speeches to lunchtime in the theatre (perhaps spread out over many days to focus on different grades) so that only interested spectators would attend, and opportunities for question and answer or debate could be provided.  The voting could  also be held at lunchtime over a few days, with students having to sign for their ballot.  Students were, of course, concerned that these suggestions would result in poor turn-out for both the speeches and at the polls, but our argument was that leaders, as they have to in political elections, must figure out ways to enhance voter interest.  These are skills they need to develop to become effective leaders.  The students heard us but some seemed hesitant, wanting things to continue as they have in the past.  We feel that some changes should be made in order to move the excercise away from a popularity contest and become more engaging for audience members and candidates.  We do not, however, wish to take away opportunities from students if they still feel they are worthwhile and important.

If you have any ideas or suggestions, we are very curious to hear what you have to say. How do you balance the sense of democracy, voting and the opportunities for student leaders to speak publicly with barriers like language issues, disinterest from audience members and the potential for poor voter turn out. We would welcome any feedback you may have.

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