General Election Information

Student council elections give budding politicians the chance to experience the ups and downs of the campaign process, and elections are typically one of the most engaging and exciting civic-based learning activities that student councils sponsor on an annual basis. When student elections are well run, students become active participants in an exercise steeped in our democratic process and principles. With a little planning on the part of the student council and regular reviews of their process, student council elections have a greater chance being a positive experience for all involved.

The first challenge of establishing general election procedures is to determine the process supports the mission of the student council and is not in conflict with its constitution. Clarity is another aspect of the general review that may seem simplistic, but is often one of the prime culprits for election-related problems. Are all election rules stated in clear and concise sentences that say what they mean?

A priority for the council will be to decide if the rules of the election can pass a fairness test.  That can be achieved by asking the members to try to identify a situation where their election procedures might be perceived as biased against a student? In the absence of being able to do so, it may be safe to say that the procedures appear to be such that they apply fairly to each member of the student body.

Reviewing the election procedures in a general context will also give the committee the chance to determine if any aspect of the election process has been omitted.  The most embarrassing moments for student councils often occur when a simple omission in the written rules results in an incident that negatively affects a candidate and reflects badly on the student council itself. Walking through the election process step-by-step using the written rules and other information that students have access to will hopefully highlight any areas where important information or protocols were omitted.

The length of student council elections and the time of the year when they are held vary from school to school and there is no one magic timeline that is or should be used.  What student councils have to consider is what timeline works best in their schools and is successful for their students.  It is important though that student councils maintain and communicate the timelines for their election process to everyone at their schools.  Timelines need to be updated each year and disseminated or published early in the school year.  In their review of election timelines, the committee needs to determine if all of the important deadlines and dates of election-related activities are included.  

Preparing Candidates

Under the best conditions, student council election procedures function to ready candidates for the political challenge, understand the duties of the offices they seek, and guide them towards positive campaigning that will demonstrate their commitment and seriousness to serve their peers.  While the vast majority of student councils do have some form of candidate preparation in place, it is always in the best interest of the council to assess the scope and depth of the preparation to ensure that all students interested in seeking an office feel informed and comfortable with the process. As the committee members begin their review of candidate preparation, they need to keep in mind what they want to accomplish, namely what the candidates need to know in order to declare candidacy, run a campaign, all the while maintaining compliance with the election rules.

A significant, positive outcome of maintaining an effective preparation process is that it can serve to introduce more students to leadership positions and encourage more participation by more diverse groups of students that may not have traditionally run for office.

  • Hosting an information session for interested students is an excellent and easy way to introduce more students to the student council and to answer questions they may have regarding the various offices and election processes. This session can serve as the formal candidates' session, which many schools already host and require of students running for office.
  • Create a candidate's packet or online folder. It is efficient way to disseminate information in an orderly process. Contents of the packets would include all of the forms and documents that candidates will need to be familiar with and use during the election process.
  • Important documents for potential candidates include: the Student Council Constitution, campaign rules and regulations, timeline of deadlines and dates of specific election activities, and a summary of each office being voted on by the during the election.
    • Additionally, there may be special forms that candidates may be required to complete as part of the election process.  Examples of special forms would ones such as the candidate petitions and applications.
    • Review forms and form deadlines with the candidates.
  • Develop a candidate evaluation form to give all candidates the opportunity to evaluate your election process. As with other student council activities, obtaining feedback on the election process is best achieved by asking those who just went through it. Set the deadline for candidates to submit their evaluations to the day before the election. Doing so ensures their responses are focused on the process and not skewed by the election results.
    • Ask candidates if there were any specific areas of the previous year's election process that were confusing or if there were components that were not covered and should have been.  
    • Get feedback on what areas of the election and candidate materials were well covered and useful, and what information was missing.
    • Ask candidates what could be changed to make the election process better them.

Running for Council: CampaigningTo observe students truly involved in the democratic process found in our society, one needs to look no further than campaign week for student council elections.  Student campaigns, with very little exception demonstrate the highest forms of political ethics. Candidates run positive campaigns focusing on their own strengths and creativity rather than focusing on their opponents' weaknesses or faults. The quality of campaigns rests in the hands of the student councils and their ability to set clear expectations and to convey those to the students who choose to run for office.  

  • Focus on clarity and decisiveness when writing campaign rules. Rules that are found to be vague or confusing to the reader need to be revised.
  • Give attention and consideration to how each rule might be interpreted differently. Interpretation issues can be preempted by hosting a rules meeting for the candidates.

In recent years, technology has necessitated almost annual review of campaign rules.  Student candidates, similar to their adult political counterparts, are using the Internet as a new campaign tool.  Whether they are using social media to host campaign pages, posting to their own accounts, or using apps to reach their peers, student today have the skills and resources the go well beyond the traditional speeches, posters, and handbills that one expects to find in a student council election.  

  • Determine if and or to what extent student candidates can use online media for their campaigns.
  • If allowing online campaigning, ensure election rules reflect district policy.  
  • Create a moderated election site that has individual candidate areas or uploads, and invite candidates to submit photos and information the council will post on their behalf.

Voting: Balloting and TiesThe most sensitive area of elections is the actual voting process and its related policies. A student council election is and should be an exercise that helps prepare students for their coming civic duty as U.S. citizens and its participation goal is to achieve a 100% voter rate.

  • Design student council elections to reflect the voter experience students can expect when they participate in civic elections.  
  • Ensure ballot construction reflects fair and consistent practices, that ballots are error free.
  • Adopt voter rules that remove any barriers preventing eligible students from voting, especially when unusual circumstances call for students to have alternative times or means to cast their ballots.

Procedures that address the counting of ballots should be in writing, have principal approval and be explicitly followed. It is very important to the candidates and student body that ballots are handled in a secure manner and accurately counted.

  • When paper ballots are used, the team counting the ballots should always include several election committee members and at least two faculty members.  
    • Adopt a well-defined counting procedure and follow the steps it outlines.
    • When hand counting ballots, class or precinct sets should be counted by more than one person.  Scanned ballots can also be run through twice.
  • Once ballot counts are confirmed, notify principal of the results prior to announcing.
  • Adopt a written policy about the release of ballot counts that has principal approval.
    • Unless otherwise stated by school district policy, NASC recommends that specific totals of elections not be made available or otherwise published. The rationale is to prevent elevating disappointment or embarrassment to a candidate.
    • Candidate requests of ballot totals can be shared in generic terms of 'close', 'not close', or by identifying the percent of the votes earned.

At some point in time, any student council can expect an election to end in a tie or with no one candidate receiving a majority of the votes. In those times, problems can be avoided if the student council, the candidates, and the student body are aware of how ties will be resolved (this includes the recounting of votes as well). If the committee review finds that ties are not sufficiently addressed or are not included in the election procedures, the members will need to work with the adviser and principal to add them.  

  • Adopt a position and procedure for resolving ties and the situation of having more than two candidates with none receiving a majority vote.
    • There are two common majorities that are commonly used with student council elections.
      • Plurality Majority - one candidate gets more votes than others, but does not attain a majority of the total votes cast.
      • Simple Majority - one candidate attains more than 50% of the votes cast (50%+1 vote).
    • Using a plurality majority reduces or eliminates the need for run-off elections when more than two candidates run for an office.
    • Visit with local elections officials to explore how similar situations are handled when this situation occurs in regular elections.
    • Should a runoff vote be necessary, hold it only once. A subsequent tie would be broken by an acceptable method as recommended by the local board of elections - ex. Coin Flip or Drawing Lots (names from a hat).

Reviewing Current Election ProceduresNASC recommends for councils to hold a committee review their election procedures and policies every year. The purpose of an annual review is two-fold.

  • Ensure any changes such as major shifts in the student body structure (example: adding a grade level or demographic/number shifts due to redistricting), newly adopted school, district, or state policies, or school schedules and calendars do not impact the council elections. To recommend edits to election procedures if any change has created a non-compliance or other significant issue. When changes are needed, the amendments to procedures or policies should be made in timely manner and shared with the student body well ahead of the next election cycle. A suggested minimum would be 3-5 months or longer.
  • Annual reviews provide election committees the opportunity to refresh their familiarity with the procedures and policies, and to get any questions answered or clarifications before members assume their duties to manage the election process.