This year’s AMS Elections seem to be returning to (a pre-pandemic) normal. The Board of Governors (BoG), Senate and all but one AMS executive race are contested, and referendum questions have returned to the ballot.
Though it is hard to say exactly what increases voter turnout, more contested races and more referenda — particularly surrounding student fees or the U-Pass — are often correlated with more participation according to past election cycles.
However, with voter turnout on the decline over the past two years and last year’s election seeing the lowest voter turnout in over a decade, turnout is not guaranteed to return to pre-pandemic levels, even with some of those indicators.
While the AMS has expressed an interest in boosting students’ electoral engagement, its efforts this past year, coupled alongside issues with the Elections Committee and its confusing messaging, don’t seem likely to help this ongoing student engagement problem.
Wasn’t there a committee for that?
After last year’s elections, AMS Council created a committee to look into elections engagement.
The Elections Engagement Committee was intended to look into the reasons for last year’s low turnout, recruit and develop candidates to run and make sure there was a low barrier of entry to run. A report of its findings was set to be presented in September 2021.
But by the time September rolled around, members still had not met.
In aSeptember interview with The Ubyssey, AMS President Cole Evans cited organizational challenges of getting proper representation on the committee as the reason for the lack of meetings.
There was also the problem of finding a chair. Initially, the committee was meant to be chaired by the chief electoral officer (CEO), but on August 25, Max Holmes, who had previously served as CEO in 2017, was selected to chair the committee.
In September, Holmes said he hoped the report would be completed by December. But, after the committee met later that month, it decided it didn’t see a point in itself, according to Evans.
“I think there was a decision that was made at that point that was like, ‘You know, we are already in the fall, the elections team is going to be hired soon. Is this committee potentially just duplicating work that the Elections Committee should be doing?’” Evans told The Ubyssey in January.
Council voted to disband the Elections Engagement Committee late last fall and passed off the report to the Elections Committee.
In November 2021, The Ubyssey reported that a report was expected in January of this year — but it never came.
A hard year for the Elections Committee
A last-minute staffing change also presented a challenge for this year’s Elections Committee and its ability to discuss voter engagement strategies.
Late last November, the AMS’s then-CEO, Olivia Yu, was terminated upon her request following what she perceived as improper employee treatment.
At the time of her termination, Yu told The Ubyssey that she was given a transition report but little other support in entering her role.
Yu’s termination gave the AMS little time to find a new CEO. At its December 1 meeting, AMS Council gave the HR Committee power to select a new officer without Council approval.
By early January, the committee had hired first year Shania Muthu.
Muthu had only had one month to familiarize herself with the AMS and elections code before the start of the nomination period. Typically, the CEO has nine months.
She was also disadvantaged by not having an opportunity to run the fall constituency elections — which can be viewed as a trial run for the CEO.
This lack of experience and time to familiarize herself with code has gotten Muthu and the whole Elections Committee into trouble.
First, it was the All-Candidates Meeting, where candidates said the Candidates’ Handbook contained incorrect dates. The Elections Committee sent candidates a follow-up email with the corrected dates, but that email stated the debates would be held in December, prompting another correction.
Then it was the ban on elections candidates consulting with student groups prior to the campaigning period, breaking an election standard. This ban appears to directly contradict Section IX, Subsection A, Article 2, Paragraph 6 of AMS code which allows candidates to have private communication about election plans. Muthu declined to comment on this ban.
Last week, the Elections Committee made the controversial decision to suspend the campaigns of presidential candidate Saad Shoaib and VP external candidate Erin Co for 24 hours, including the Great Debate, for similarities between the two candidates’ websites that amounted, in Muthu’s opinion, to “slate-like behaviour.”
The suspension was shortened to 12 hours to exclude the debate after the Elections Committee learned that AMS code allows all candidates to participate in election debates.
Shoaib and Co later appealed the decision, which the Elections Appeals Committee granted.
Muthu’s decision led to online criticism — including from Yu — that primarily centred around Muthu being a first year and perhaps an unfit CEO.
But there have been many first year CEOs.
“It was my first year when I was elections administrator, and we increased turnout up to 20 per cent,” said Holmes, who was CEO during his first year. “So, you know, I had just as little or just as much experience.”
Holmes also serves as a student representative on the Board of Governors and is seeking reelection to a fourth term this year.
The Elections Committee released a statement on the online criticism, saying that “any sort of bullying and harassment at this time will not be tolerated toward the committee.”
“It’s very important for people to remember that these people running the elections and people running in elections are human beings too. It’s important that, while it’s okay to ask questions and be constructive, it’s not acceptable to attack people personally [or …] call people’s competencies into question,” Evans told The Ubyssey following the incident.
Evans clarified that the CEO is also expected to be respectful. Muthu responded to one of the online comments calling out a former exec for being disrespectful toward her. Muthu told The Ubyssey she does not regret her response and feels it was justified.
In a recent interview with The Ubyssey, Evans said he helped Muthu with her onboarding process and has made himself available — as much as an AMS president can since AMS Elections are run independently from the AMS executives.
“There’s still ways that we can improve how we onboard the election staff, I’ve noticed this year. There are definitely some gaps in making sure that they are adequately supported,” said Evans.
“But again, the president can’t necessarily overly involve themselves in running the election.”
At the March 2 AMS Council meeting, councillor Katherine Feng asked Evans what training was provided for the Elections Committee ahead of this year’s elections, but he declined to comment.
Muthu agreed that the AMS has tried its best to onboard her during elections but said there is still room for improved support.
“I’d say that is just because of the given circumstances, how abrupt everything was left, and just … how difficult that kind of became because the election was obviously upcoming,” said Muthu.
Holmes also echoed this in a recent interview.
“I will say, as somebody who did come in as new, [I] 100 per cent agree that resourcing is a problem. I think that the AMS is really going to have to look at that, because this isn’t the first year that this has been a problem,” Holmes said.
A more money, fewer problems mindset
Without a report on electoral engagement, the Elections Committee has budgeted more on promotional events than in recent memory to increase voter turnout and engagement.
Combined, the budget for this year’s elections and referenda is $63,558; elections individually have a budget of $46,000.
For promotions and advertising, the AMS has allocated $7,000 — primarily for in-person events.
This figure was originally $5,000, but the Finance Committee added an additional $2,000 to the budget after the Elections Committee requested more money to hold promotional events.
The AMS tends to budget around $45,000 for elections each year, but in recent years, the actual amount spent has come to about $40,000. Last year was an exception; the student society only spent $27,043, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2016/17 elections, the AMS ended up spending just under $4,982 of its $6,000 budget on advertising and promotions.
Since then, the AMS has not spent more than $3,000 promoting and advertising an election.
The Elections Committee and Evans hope the new AMS initiative Elect Change will help boost voter turnout.
Through Elect Change the AMS will donate $2 for every ballot cast to UNICEF Canada’s COVID-19 Fund.
The student society said it would donate up to $30,000 for this initiative, which translates to 15,000 ballots, or about 25 per cent voter turnout. Elect Change is not included in the elections budget and is instead funded by the internal projects fund.
According to budgets and elections records between 2010 and 2021 sent to The Ubyssey, it’s hard to say whether spending more on elections results in higher contestation or turnout.
Turnout has always fluctuated and the number of contested races has been somewhat constant since 2010 — barring last year’s election.
New year, new engagement strategy
The Elections Committee has spent most of its allocated $7,000 for promotions on in-person events — which is unprecedented in recent memory.
The first of these events, Dress Up for Drama, took place on February 11 and has drawn criticism from some attendees.
The semi-formal event — which was hosted in The Gallery — cost $4,000, based on minutes from the February 4 Finance Committee meeting.
It aimed to increase student interest in the upcoming election via a Q&A panel with Muthu, Evans, VP Admin Lauren Benson and Student Senator-at-Large Dante Agosti-Moro. Free food and one free drink were also offered.
Promotion for the event included posts on the AMS ElectionsInstagram, Twitter and Facebook. But, according to those in attendance, many who were at the event seemed to already be people in the AMS or people who did not know what the event was about.
“I met these four girls who had no idea what the elections were about ... I was like, ‘Oh, are you guys interested in the elections?’ And they’re like, ‘No, we’re just here for the free food,’” said Sydney Harakal, an AMS presidential candidate this year.
“They weren’t listening to what the elections people had to say. They just ate the food and they were disappointed they couldn’t dance. There wasn’t a dance floor so they left.”
Harakal said they had to strain to hear the panel discussion on elections because the DJ continued to play over the panel. They said overall it was not particularly helpful.
“I know people that went to The Gallery that day and were told that there was a private event going on, and they couldn’t come in,” said Noah Jassmann, a VP finance candidate. “I don’t think having a private event for elections is the best [idea].”
Tickets for Dress Up for Drama did “sell out” — the event was free but required students to sign up to attend — according to the AMS Elections Instagram.
Feng requested that the Elections Committee create a report on the Dress Up for Drama event, along with a report on the lack of nominations for faculty student senators, at the March 2 Council meeting.
Both reports are due by April 6.
The Elections Committee is also planning a gala in the Great Hall in the Nest for results night on March 11. Although the event is happening after voting closes, the committee hopes requiring attendees to show that they voted will increase student engagement.
According to the February 4 Finance Committee meeting minutes, the elections team anticipates that the gala will cost a little more than the Dress Up for Drama event.
The Ubyssey asked Muthu for the exact budget, but she declined to comment before confirming it would be about $4,000.
The Elections Committee has yet to promote this second event on its social media.
Varsha Gangadharan, the chief returning officer for AMS Elections, told the Finance Committee the team planned to use sponsored Facebook posts to advertise the event, but Muthu told The Ubyssey that they will not pay for any Facebook or Instagram advertisements for this year’s elections in general.
Holmes, who credited paid promotions as one of the reasons for the high turnout for the election he ran in 2017, said that while paid promotions are helpful, not to discount email blast effectiveness.
“When you look at past elections, and you actually see the big bumps in turnout, they always are associated with the email blasts that come from the [Elections] Committee,” he said.
AMS says it’s doing better
According to Evans, the AMS as a whole has been promoting elections more than it did last year — something he promised to do during his reelection campaign.
Evans said he received positive feedback from some candidates on his guide to candidates, which was also sent out to clubs and student leaders.
However, Harakal said, as an outsider, they had a hard time finding information and had to put in a lot of work on their end.
“Before the election, I didn’t follow the AMS accounts, or the AMS Elections accounts … I got zero information from anything like [nominations], except for when I personally looked for it myself,” they said. “So I think I can definitely see why it’s tough to get students engaged, because you just got to trust that they’re gonna find you in the first place.”
Still, Holmes noted that this year’s elections have a diverse set of candidates, with both AMS oldtimers and newcomers running.
“I think [the diversity in candidates] does show that there’s been greater mentorship within the AMS this year and encouraging people to run, which is, a great thing to see,” said Holmes.
The jury is still out
There is no way to really predict if voter turnout will return to ‘the pre-pandemic norm’ of 20 per cent before students head to the polls this week.
Voter turnout is a complex, multifaceted problem. While this election does have the normal indicators of an election headed for a decent turnout — contested races and referendum questions, particularly ones around student fees — Evans cautioned that the AMS will need to wait to see if it has done enough to engage with students.
“The thing about elections is that you really won’t be able to get a good answer [about if we had good engagement] until five years down the road, where you can sort of compare 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and see what the trends are,” said Evans.
— With files from Jackson Dagger and Charlotte Alden