Letter to the Editor, re: VFM

Posted by: | January 23, 2008 | 14 Comments

This was sent to us as an anonymous letter to the editor, and we would like to run it as continued discourse on the VFM:

How to Drink the VFM’s Milkshake
name withheld upon request

The VFM contest would have very easy to hack this year. The main problem with VFM is that it is extremely easy to enter. For a measly $150 and five minutes filling out a form, any publication can appear on the ballot. The entry fee was raised from $100 to $150 this year as an attempt to filter out the ‘noise’. As Matt Naylor put it, “the idea is to limit the number in the contest; otherwise it would collapse under its own weight.” Great idea Matt! Too bad you went about it
entirely the wrong way. The voter media website explains the choice of using an entry fee: “It’s better to charge an entry fee than to require media entrants to collect signatures, because an entry fee has far lower social cost.” That last part seems to about sum it up: an entry fee has a low social cost. With a $2000 cash prize on the line, an entry fee with a low social cost and a high return on investment, it is almost like the contest was inviting fly-by night publications to enter just for the money. Matt Naylor’s mistake was focusing on the number of entrants and not the quality of the publications.

So, how could one hack the contest to assure themselves the top prize. The easiest way would be to pull a James Green. James Green, a relatively unknown, ran for mayor of Vancouver in the 2005 civic elections. He received an impressive 4,273 votes, but many think that the majority of James’ votes were actually intended for the similarly named and far more well known candidate, Jim Green. Voters, when scanning the ballot, just voted for the first J. Green they saw. So if
one were to enter the contest with a name similar to another a publication, it can be reasonably assumed that some of the voters would mistakenly vote for it. So which publication’s name would one mimic to generate the most accidental votes? It might be tempting to riff off the The Underground, the top finisher from last year, but as that publication is likely to enter the contest, one would more likely split the vote than win the prize. Luckily for the would-be hacker, the most well known newspaper on campus, The Ubyssey, doesn’t enter the competition. Mark Latham did something called a “multifactor analysis” of last years results, and concluded that had The Ubyssey entered it would have won by a landslide. And thus, The Ubussy is

So unless the election code is changed next year, I am going to drink the VFM’s milkshake. I’LL DRINK IT UP!


14 Comments so far

  1. Blake on January 23, 2008 5:15 am

    VFM is clearly broken and needs to be fixed if this contest is to ever run again. Take “Maclean’s On Campus” as another example of a publication that is just looking for a quick and easy money-grab. This entrant has no covered a shred of the election, yet will probably win some money just because the name “Maclean’s” is well-known and respected (presumably). I would like to see a signature system implemented as it would likely require the entrant to justify it’s entry in the VFM contest to the signees. That being said, dropping the entry fee would results in over $1500 lost revenue for the contest, which would mean lower prize values. I sincerely hope that VFM will be around next year and that Council and the responsible committee will address these concerns very carefully.

  2. OutsideTheBox on January 23, 2008 5:41 am

    I think there are ways other than collecting signatures that prove a publication has a significant display of support.

    How about accepting total membership of facebook groups? That would be less of a hassle than collecting signatures, and almost as secure.

    Let Them Eat Cake’s facebook group has 103 members, and the UBC Insiders’ has 130.

    That idea might not hold up in reality, but I am sure there is *some* solution that would be better than the current situation

  3. Anonymous on January 23, 2008 5:44 am

    3 points
    1) It’s an $8000 prize pool, not $2000.
    2) The Elections Committee has some discretion over who can and cannot enter, and I think they would take a “Ubussy” entrant seriously.
    3)I’m going to assume that the City of Vancouver requires signatures for entrants such as James Green to be on the ballot. How would requiring signatures, versus an entry fee, make any difference in terms of screening out joke candidates? Supposedly people are less likely to risk $150of their won money than they are willing to round up 50 signatures from random students.

  4. Hmmmmm on January 23, 2008 5:55 am

    @Anonymo0us January 22, 2008 9:44 PM

    1) For a single publication the most they can win is $2000.
    2) If the Elections Committee has enough discretion to ban the “Ubussy,” they would have enough discretion to ban pretty much any entrant. That is too much power. Simple rules and guidelines need to be drafted so the Elections Committee doesn’t have to guess what entrants’ intentions are or if the voters would be confused by a name.

  5. Jesse Ferreras on January 23, 2008 6:46 am

    I can hear what’s going on in Mark Latham’s head right now…

    “My milkshake brings all the votes to the yard,
    And they’re like,
    It’s better than yours,
    Damn right, it’s better than yours,
    I can pay for this,
    But I have to charge…”

  6. hmmmm on January 23, 2008 6:49 am

    @Anonymous January 22, 2008 9:44 PM

    3) The James Green example was used just to show how voters could be easily tricked. The Vancouver Charter required Green to run using his real name — it really is James Green. The VFM contest on the other hand allows the entrants to pick any name they want.

    Would I risk $150 if I was sure I was going to win $2000? Yes, definitely.

    I wasn’t trying to say that requiring signatures would necessarily be better hurdle. My point was that the current system has a number of flaws that could be easily exploited, and 2000 reasons why someone would want to.

  7. Fire Hydrant on January 23, 2008 8:09 am

    From an e-mail I received from Macleans On Campus:

    “…Plus, with the same field of candidates, I may end up winning something. I don’t want to. That means I have to cost it into our budget and then donate it back out….

    This is before they paid the entry fee. So the claim that they’re there for the money is, according to my information, somewhat inaccurate.

    I know they were going to be doing a few stories, and I know they’ve been gathering footage and information. Probably they’ve been too busy with schoolwork and covering things like Oshawa city council trying to impose hefty fees on rental units near the universities.

  8. Stephen McCarthy on January 23, 2008 9:10 am

    I’m also confused by Joey Coleman and his Macleans on Campus entry. Why enter the VFM contest if you’re not going to cover any stories?

    Joey does say “Having been at McMaster for my last two student elections, I plan to illustrate the differences between my personal experiences and what happens at UBC.” I guess he meant to post and just couldn’t work it into his schedule. Still frustrates me.

    More so with the Underground and 432. (The 432 latest issue had one farce elections article–not that there’s anything wrong with those–and one small box which was essentially a “Vote for Duncan, he’s in Science” advertisement). The Underground, Tyler Allison tells me, found out about the VFM deadline at the last minute. What I didn’t find out was why they decided to enter… I haven’t seen an elections edition yet. (I could be wrong as of today or tomorrow).

    Rant done. I think VFM has to be friendly to the little guys (like the Insiders) that put heart, soul and missed classes into actually covering the elections.

    I’m trying to think of ways to actually do this without giving too much power to the elections committee, who may think things like Eat Cake or the D.A. are too silly and don’t qualify. But I must do math first.

  9. eat cake on January 23, 2008 9:24 am

    Seriously though- there are simple things that have to change with the VFM contest for it to be of real value to students. 1. there has to be an onus on entrants to actually produce content. No name entrants have that drive because they cannot coast, big name entrants can and do, and win huge sums of money for nothing- this is just retarded.
    and 2. It can’t just be for insiders who know there’s a good chance of making their money back, and therefore it MUST be financially possible for all students to enter

  10. Mike Thicke on January 23, 2008 9:01 pm

    I think you guys are missing a basic assumptions of the VFM contest. That is an assumption of economic rationality. Students are assumed to be rationally ignorant about the AMS elections because the return they would get on investigating the issues and candidates is not justified by the marginal benefit they would receive in having a marginally better chance at a marginally better executive that only has a marginal impact on their student lives. Students are also assumed to be rational in their voting behaviour. They will only vote for publications that did benefit them in some way. No filter on entrants is needed, because the voters are fully capable of evaluating the (subjective) benefits they receive from each entrant. For some people it might be rational to assign VFM money to a Darfur charity that happened to enter the competition, or for a candidate that promised to throw a big party with their winnings. It would be paternalistic (so goes the ideology) for the AMS or the elections committee to presume the preferences of the voters, or assume some lack of ability on the part of the voters to pick the candidates that most deserve prizes.

    When discussing VFM you need to always be aware that Mark is an economist, and the contest is designed against certain background assumptions of a certain economic ideology.

    There is also something of an ideology in saying that the AMS should continue to have this contest, as it costs the AMS nothing to do so. “Costs” here is purely an economic term. As I think Gina brought to our attention last year, the contest does cost us something, and that something is equality. The monetary entry fee could be a significant barrier to entry to many students, and thus serve to increase the economic disparity on campus, as only those who are already privileged have the opportunity to gain further wealth.

    I hope that if the VFM contest continues in further years, the student body takes serious time to consider how to administer it in a way that furthers the goals of the AMS. I think encouraging campus media is a great idea, but I am far from convinced that this is the best way, or that elections are even the appropriate test of this sort of competitive distribution of collective wealth.

    For instance I think it would be better to have the contest be simply for media in general, over the entire year, and not restricted to the election period. The ubcinsiders website has year-round content which is excellent, and any mechanism which can encourage students to continue with an endeavor like this would be very positive. The AMS probably should also just have a gigantic front page link to ubcinsiders permanently :-).. or have http://www.ams.ubc.ca just redirect here.

  11. Alfie on January 23, 2008 9:48 pm

    You are not graduating this year,right? Otherwise, I am concerned who is dedicated enough to continue the “UBC Insiders” brand if Mike wants to make a re-direct link from the AMS website…:'(

  12. hmmmmmm on January 23, 2008 11:00 pm

    @ Thicke

    The Ubyssey provides coverage of the election that surely benefits some students. If given the chance, some students will try to vote for it. The naming loophole allows a third-party to give them that chance.

    The VFM committee does’t really care if people take advantage of the system. They don’t put up the money for the prize, Mark Latham does. They don’t particularly care whether a deserving candidate wins or not, either way, they still give out the cash. The parties that suffers a loss from ‘bad’ entrants are the ‘good’ publications that get less cash. The VFM committee is insulated from any risk, and therefore has no incentive to try and make the system work. It is a perfect example of the economic concept of moral hazard.

  13. Jesse Ferreras on January 27, 2008 7:47 am

    Disregard my comments earlier about the “My Milkshake is better than yours” lyrics. The anonymous writer was quoting a fantastic monologue from “There Will Be Blood.” I saw the movie tonight and all of a sudden her post made sense to me. Great one, by the way, and everyone should check it out.

  14. Joey Coleman on January 31, 2008 8:09 am

    Hey everyone,

    I thought I would find the time to participate in the VFM and help to add creditability to it.
    I did not, actually it appears I may have achieved the complete opposite.

    Darren has it pretty much dead-on. I was swamped with a lot of school work and the Oshawa story. Many people do not realize that I take public transit and the roundtrip travel time to UOIT in Oshawa is about 7hours for me.

    You want some irony, my “coverage” of the UBC election will actually be on newsstands next Thursday.

    Yes, in the print edition of Maclean’s there is some coverage. The Hydrant is getting well deserved national exposure. Plus, Eric Szeto has been working on video to go with the story.

    My plan was to write about the AMS election, unfortantely, I got swamped with other stuff.

    Heck, I declared war on the commerce paper and lost! I lost to a bunch of bean counters…. this is a shame I will bare the rest of my life.

    Again, to be clear, we are not in it for money – we will be donating any winnings….

    – Joey

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