The end of February marked a year since the current Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) sabbatical officers were elected in the basement of the Mercantile Bar. If you scroll back far enough you’ll find photos of giddy crowds and warm embraces between new colleagues – a world away from the current reality. While we’ve officially been living with the pandemic for a year now, and Zoom has become second nature, this is the first time TCDSU elections have been held online.
Last August, TCDSU signed a two-year contract with EVIABI Ltd. The cost is €17,000 for the two years and it covers the running of all elections in this format, including elections with bodies outside TCDSU that the union have a memorandum agreement with. This system allows for single transfer voting as well as the creation of constituencies. For the first time students are not automatically registered to vote and must do so manually online.
Megan O’Connor, the incumbent education officer, is one of the key decision makers in the election process. The legitimacy of the new system is something she is particularly proud of. “It’s as foolproof as it gets”, says O’Connor. “We’re able to ensure that every single person not only just votes once but they’re actually a registered student, which is something that we didn’t have the proper mechanisms for before.”
In previous years, when students went to the polls they’d have to show their student ID. However, there was no way of knowing if the ID was authentic or even in-date.
Speaking to The University Times, Chair of Council Yannick Gloster explains that last year the new voting software was trialled on a selection of courses. “That’s how we knew going into using the software that it did work, it worked well, and that it fitted our needs”, he says.
So far, the software has been used for class representative elections and at every Council meeting where there were elections of more than one person as Zoom doesn’t support the single transferable vote format.
We’re able to ensure that every single person not only just votes once but they’re actually a registered student, which is something that we didn’t have the proper mechanisms for before
Gloster emphasises the increased accessibility online voting provides: “By having it in this online format, you can do it at any hour of the day, you can while you’re voting, research the candidates, determine who you want to vote for… it allows students to get engaged on their own schedule, on their own time.”
At €8,500 per year, the cost of the software may be concerning to some union members. However, O’Connor assures students that, with this new system, they are running elections at around 50 per cent of the cost of other years.
“Previously we were spending thousands of euro on facilitating voting anyways because all members of the electoral commission and anyone who staffs the voting booths for that entire period are all paid workers, and also there was huge printing costs, and an awful lot of the time too much would be printed”, she says.
If a venue had to be paid for to host the counting of the votes, that was another expense. “For the service that we’re getting, I think that it’s greatly improved the democratic process of everything we do”, adds O’Connor.
Surprisingly, engagement with the union has only increased this year, despite the lack of physical contact students have had with the campus and the union. Attendance at Council has more than doubled and almost 4,000 people had registered to vote before the campaigns had even begun.
By having it in this online format, you can do it at any hour of the day, you can while you’re voting, research the candidates, determine who you want to vote for… it allows students to get engaged on their own schedule, on their own time
In pondering why this may be, Gloster says: “Since [first-year students] feel isolated and not connected to the college, the way that they have connected is through our Instagram accounts, our Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts, asking questions, viewing our Instagram stories and stuff like that.”
“Recognising that, we decided that we would use our social media campaigns and our platforms to be able to spotlight the candidates”, Gloster adds.
All candidates had the opportunity to make a one-minute video and TCDSU has been posting a couple of them every day on their social media pages while tagging the candidates’ campaign accounts.
Speaking to The University Times, the sole candidate for communications and marketing officer, Aoife Cronin, describes how the pandemic has impacted her campaign: “Any kind of ‘out-there’ project I’ve really had to size down, because in my head I’m trying to come up with the most realistic things that can be done either in the worst-case scenario or the best-case scenario.”
Cronin will likely have one of the most important jobs in TCDSU next year. She will be responsible for keeping students informed and connected to the union through social media and weekly emails as we slowly return to normality. Her manifesto outlines how she will increase engagement through collaborations with societies and non-union services, an Irish language blog and more digestible sabbatical reports.
According to TCDSU, there are 4,876 students registered to vote at the time of writing. If all those who registered vote it will mark an astonishing uptake in engagement.
Registration will remain open until 6pm on Tuesday and voting will begin immediately after JCR hustings the same evening. You can register to vote here.