Engaging with student democracy

Friday 24 May 2024

Globally, more voters than ever before will have the opportunity to vote this year. With the General Election scheduled for 4 July, the UK joins a swathe of countries with national elections in 2024 – representing about half of the people on the planet. 

Closer to home, St Catharine’s students have regular opportunities to cast votes at both College and University levels: our undergraduates have already elected representatives to the College’s Junior Combination Room (JCR) Committee, our postgraduates will cast votes in the Middle Combination Room (MCR) Committee elections at the end of this term, and all students were also eligible to vote in the university-wide Cambridge Student Union elections earlier this year. We caught up with some of the students who coordinate these elections to find out more about student democracy at St Catharine’s. 

JCR Committee elections

Undergraduates at St Catharine’s hold elections for positions on the JCR Committee at least once a year, with the JCR constitution requiring 20% turnout to elect the President and 10% for other representatives. These thresholds were easily exceeded in the most recent round of elections: around 30% of students voted in the presidential race in Michaelmas Term and almost half of the undergraduate student body cast a total of 2,733 votes for other Committee positions in the main election in Lent Term. 

The nomination process, hustings and online votes are managed by students themselves, with the JCR Vice-President coordinating undergraduate elections. Poppy Jo Lee (a second-year HSPS undergraduate) initially served as JCR Vice-President in 2023 and is now the JCR President. She commented:

“I am glad that so many Catz undergraduates want to have their say on who should represent them because the JCR Committee is definitely one of the most effective channels for raising ideas and concerns with the College. Special credit should go to the students who threw their hat in the ring to stand in the recent JCR Committee elections.

“We are a close-knit community and this means that our election campaigns are generally civil and well-meaning – I even remember a hustings question last year that invited candidates to say something nice about their opponent! We don’t agree with each other on everything but it is important that we can have frank conversations and that our elections provide a forum for sharing differing opinions.”

Poppy Jo Lee
Poppy Jo Lee

MCR Committee elections

The postgraduate community at St Catharine’s elects representatives to the MCR Committee every June. Like the JCR, the elections are managed by students – this time our postgraduates – and voting is entirely online. The next election cycle is about to start and the outgoing MCR Co-presidents are preparing to call for manifestos from students who wish to stand for any committee positions. The outgoing MCR Secretary will also be responsible for coordinating the elections, including organising hustings so that students can hear from the candidates before casting their votes. 

Praharsh Babu (a final-year medical student) and Sam Ryan (an Astronomy PhD student), the current MCR Co-presidents at St Catharine’s, explain:

“We hope Catz postgraduates will look out for our message about this year’s elections and know that they are very welcome to stand. Since the College community is so friendly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our elections aren’t remotely cut-throat or cliquey. Instead, it ends up being a space for people to have a say about the different aspects of College life that matter most for them. Nobody takes themselves too seriously and some manifestos are positively entertaining!

“The MCR Committee has a lovely tradition whereby our midsummer elections culminate in a dinner, a sociable way for the outgoing representatives to handover to their successors. For us as co-presidents, we will also appreciate the chance to thank everyone who has been involved this year.” 

Praharsh Babu at his BA graduation
Praharsh Babu at his BA graduation
Sam Ryan in the MCR at St Catharine's
Sam Ryan in the MCR

Cambridge Student Union elections

The Cambridge Student Union (SU) is the representative body for all students at the University of Cambridge and its constituent Colleges. It holds elections annually in Lent Term when all students (undergraduates and postgraduates) get to vote for all of its major roles, including who gets to serve as full-time sabbatical officers. 

The SU’s elections are overseen by its Democracy Committee, which sets the rules for elections and other democratic processes. The students on the Committee are themselves elected by vote at the SU’s Student Council (comprising representatives from JCRs, MCRs and other student groups).

It was through this mechanism that Archie McCann (now a final-year Engineering undergraduate) was elected to the Democracy Committee in October 2022 and then as the SU’s Returning Officer a year later. During his year-long term of office, he is responsible for chairing the Democracy Committee and has the final say on any election decisions, including the online elections for the SU’s leadership in Lent Term 2024 – all while continuing his studies and other extracurricular activities. 

He said, “We saw a turnout of about 10% this year and an increase in total votes cast which suggested to me that voters were casting votes across more posts, rather than only voting for a friend who is standing or a position that particularly affects them. There is no shortage of opinions among Cambridge students so I hope as many as possible will use their vote to make their voice heard – it doesn’t take much time to cast your vote in online student elections and it’s far easier than lobbying reps or submitting motions.

“Compared to other colleges in Cambridge, I think Catz students are more engaged in terms of election turnout as well as engagement with Student Council, our JCR & MCR Committees and in general with activities in College. My introduction to student elections was successfully standing as the Male & Nonbinary Welfare Officer on our JCR Committee, which gave me confidence that people standing to represent other students are doing so for altruistic reasons – to make things better for our community or articulate students’ opinions on issues.”

Archie McCann
Archie McCann