After my recent abysmal loss in the SUS elections, I found myself wondering what, exactly, do candidates need to do to themselves and surrounding victims in order to get their message out? Student leaders and political junkies constantly and lamely lament the so-called “student apathy” problem. Everyone else is too apathetic to care, frankly. The apathy issue is bound up with the perceived irrelevance of student government on the part of most students, but also with the dynamics of the societies themsleves, which have constructed and enforced an exclusive protectionist force-field around them. So either people voted into student government are instantaneously transformed into small-minded snobs, or opportunities for relevance and communication truly are limited, or the electorate is perpetuating the status quo (exactly what it bitches about) with it’s choices. Given my vehement personal bitterness, I took option 3 as a working hypothesis.

To find out a little more about how people make their choices, I conducted an utterly unscientific poll* by ambushing people randomly in the SUB and in the 99 B-line queue. Find out about the results and my mad excel-skillz behind the jump.

My first question was: “Did you vote, or do you plan to vote in your undergraduate society election this year at UBC?”

As you can see, my sample obviously cared a little more than average, since the going rate for undergraduate elections is about 10% voter turnout, and I’ve got around 23%. Kudos to SUB-wanderers. This 23% represents 15 people.

I asked these what sorts of factors helped them decide how to vote, listing 6 options: 1) reading posters, 2) facebook groups, 3) knowing (of) people personally beforehand 4) reading candidates’ external websites, 5) class announcements, and 6) totally random. (They were allowed to say yes to as many as they wanted, so the bars do not add up to 15.)

As you can see, almost everyone said that knowing people, or knowing of people personally was a factor. Several people commented that they would go down the list and vote for people they knew, and only if they did not know anyone, they would then find out about the candidates’ platforms. Unsurprisingly, people in smaller faculties like engineering or Forestry didn’t pay attention to posters or websites at all and relied exclusively on knowing (of) candidates personally. Familiarity, not friendship, is important.

The next most important factor was class announcements. People commented that it helped by simply creating awareness of that person’s existence, though others said that they learned nothing from announcements and thus would not be influenced by them.

Posters, totally random, facebook groups, and external websites were about equally (in)significant. Interestingly, these categories encompass both the most detailed and the most shallow exposure candidates have. There was also a significant amount of overlap: those that read candidates’ websites were likely to use most of the other sources of exposure as well. People that payed attention to class announcements though, were unlikely to read external websites, and mostly voted by personal knowledge of the candidates. Lets be honest though, my sample size is debilitatingly small.

The conclusion that is possible is that just knowing vast numbers of people, or being a familiar figure, will do more for you in an election than any specific ideas or goals you may have for the position. Also, campaigning (posters, websites, announcements) doesn’t work that well. Targeting your acquaintances with personal appeals is more worthwhile, apparently.

So how does all this relate to apathy, the alleged irrelevance of student societies, and exclusivity? Well, it’s a bit of a cycle: as long as most people are too lazy to vote, the deciding factor in elections will be the personal acquaintances of the candidates, or associated “insiders”. Thus, it’ll be more worth it to ignore most voters and concentrate on these insiders, both in campaigns, and in policies (read: personality-driven campaigns and governance, not issue-driven ones). This further perpetuates the sense of irrelevance and exclusivity that makes people too lazy and disinterested to bother voting in the first place.

Perhaps one way to get candidates more serious and voters more interested simultaneously is as simple as advertisement: if elections are higher-profile, the level of discussion and challenge will be driven up. The interesting experiment of the Voter-Funded Media (click!) contest that accompanied the AMS elections has arguably raised the bar for campus political coverage and debate, but didn’t raise overall voter turnout. Since the banning of slates (student political parties or factions), maybe campaigns are destined to be lower-profile and less flashy. But should this translate into lower interest and greater apathy? Maybe there’s unexploited potential in the slate-less system to leave traditional campaigning behind in favor of more personally accountable issue-driven platforms. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Perhaps though, the inherent structural realities of a commuter campus, our cultural stand-offishness (just asking people to answer a two-question survey made me feel like Oliver Twist – asking for someone’s vote, and plying them with web addresses and platform points is almost an inexcusable intrusion) and the demanding academic environment are the real factors. Confronting these realities to create a stronger more informed electorate at UBC is a challenge nobody really knows how to approach. So let the laments continue.

*Yes, I am in sciences, and can do error analysis. No I did not bother.


12 Comments so far

  1. Cameron Gerald Funnell on March 21, 2007 1:30 am

    Hi Maayan!


  2. Fire Hydrant on March 21, 2007 2:38 am

    For a bit of devil’s advocacy: If you vote for me because you know me (or have seen stuff I wrote in a campus newspaper and thought it was funny), might that not indicate that I either am connected to a lot of Average Apathetic Students (or at least can spread information to them memorably)? Might these not be considered qualifications? (For PR or publications jobs, might these not even be crucial?)

    Also, I seem to recall about 8 years ago everyone elected to the AMS executive was the first name on the ballot alphabetically, regardless of slate. Things like random chance (or a campaign photo with cleavage) which ought not to have an effect should not be neglected, and have been known to trump reason.

  3. Anonymous on March 21, 2007 5:29 am

    Did you not think it curious that the winners of VFM were mostly previously established campus publications? Does that not make some indication to you that it was just another popularity contest?

    For example, The 432 talked to no candidates, had one, half page ‘article’ that was based entirely off information found in the candidates write ups posted on the ams website, and still won something like 4th place. On the other hand informative VFM candidates like this one, or interesting ones like the RBT got nothing.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the problem lies in a lot of kids thinking university is necessary to their happiness and going just because it is expected of them not because they love learning or school or some bullshit.

    Colleen Atherton
    Outgoing SUS D. of Publications

  4. Maayan Kreitzman on March 21, 2007 5:37 am

    Hi (?)

    I certainly think that “involvement”, in whatever form that takes (knowing a whole bunch of people, or writing funny stuff in a campus rag) gives you a degree of genuine cred. They clearly shows enthusiasm, effort, personal skills, comunication skills, and the like. These are good and useful in a leader, no doubt about it. Networks are important and essential in whatever public position you want to pursue, because essentially, you depend on other people to believe in you. But what they may have little or nothing to do with is the actual position you’re running for, how much you know about it, how what you think of the issues surrounding it, and how good you would be in it. Being funny, or having alot of friends are not the main qualifications I’d look for in a leader, though they may be key in helping you gain the position.
    But, for the more important (in my view) criteria to prevail, a larger electorate has to take a greater interest.

  5. Cecilia on March 21, 2007 6:46 pm

    Right, it’s completely a popularity contest, or a familiarity contest, or a random well-okay-that-person-has-a-funny-name contest…

    What evidence is there to make me think that I will gain anywhere near as much as the person I am voting for?

    From the brief readings available on the candidate profiles, I still have no idea how most of those people would affect me. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people running are unconvinced of their impact on us, the general science undergrads.

    I don’t think the general science undergrad population believes that the election has any affect on them at all.

    Is this a misconception? And does this make us lazy or unloving towards learning because we don’t care about the elections as much as the people running?

  6. angela on March 21, 2007 8:22 pm

    this article ruled. i think the personal contact with voters is important. it makes them feel noticed, which is something student government should try to do.

  7. Fire Hydrant on March 21, 2007 8:38 pm

    “One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them: It is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. Anyone who is capable of getting themselves into a position of power should on no account be allowed to do the job.” –Douglas Adams

    There’s actually a fairly deep problem, in that the electors don’t know what they’re electing the electees to do (and sometimes the electees are in the same boat). Since they don’t know what the job is, they don’t see it as important, and are unwilling to find out enough about it to make an informed choice. If that’s the case, voting in someone who you’ve met at a beer garden and would feel comfortable going up to with questions or suggestions isn’t entirely irrational. You’ve even established that they’re a Real Person, not a Student Politician.

    This is a very difficult self-perpetuating problem. Students would need to know why positions are important, and that may be helped by more Facebook groups or better blurbs in the undergrad papers.

  8. Patrick on March 22, 2007 5:27 am

    Umm… Angela…

    What are you running for?

    Your name didnt appear in the candidate list that was distributed (granted, there are a lot of probably inaccuracies in there… such as ‘is Ryan Corbett running?’)

  9. angela on March 22, 2007 9:59 am

    hahaha my name isnt on the list. fucking awesome. my name is angela b and im running for aus social coordinator against someone who is likely quite capable but wont bring the aged wisdom and fresh burst of minty-fresh newness and novelty that i would bring to the position.

    my facebook group

  10. Patrick on March 22, 2007 1:30 pm

    Scratch that, it IS there, I just missed it last night when looking.

    Much luck is offered by me (or as much luck as I can offer without being an endorsement on account of the anti-slate rule)

  11. Spencer on March 23, 2007 1:25 am

    As always, I just want to jump in and point out that overall voter turnout has not gone down in the last three years since the absence of slates, though individual races have gone down significantly. We have only started to know this data since hybrid-elections were introduced, requiring the voter list to be culled of people that had already voted. If we had done that in the 2005 elections, I wonder if we would have seen the very marginal decrease that we observed (generally assumed to be due to poor campaigning on account of weather).

    I also think that 20% is the goal we should be working towards. I think that’s an amount that is reflective of the actual desire to vote, but for whatever reason people forget to go do it. 20% also isn’t that bad. It exceeds many municipal elections.

  12. Maayan Kreitzman on March 23, 2007 4:45 am

    Spencer, I wansn’t ragging on the turfing of slates – at all. Nor is voter turnout the thing most interesting to me. Rather, increasing the stakes for the elected positions to increase interest, education, and overall level of discourse is. When all you need is a whole slew of buddies to get you elected, selection pressure in that direction isn’t really there. My poll applied to *undergrad society* elections, not AMS.

    Darren, I’m sorry, but I don’t think voting for someone you met at a beer garden one time does make any sense at all. What do establish by having met them!? Over half of the “real people” I know I would pointedly NOT vote for for just that reason. Unless you know them unsuperficially, reading works better.

    I think Cecilia’s comment is emblematic of the current situation. No, it doesn’t make you a bad person to realize that yes, elected people benefit more than you do, because let’s be honest, they probably do. But a degree of further information IS available. Here, for example. In the recent SUS elections there were several informative and substantial campaign blogs. The AMS publishes alot of it’s documents and has a huge archive for those interested. SUS is trying to do a similar thing with the Tome. There are more events on campus organized by clubs and societies than I could attempt to attend every week. So yeah, student life and access to (some) information is there. And student government does have to do with both those things. So taking an interest isn’t futile, and might even be beneficial.

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