‘Vicious cycle’: AMS elections suffer from a crisis of apathy

Apathy seems to be the default attitude of many students, a sentiment that is reflected in voter trends.

The AMS elections have dominated Ubyssey coverage, message boards in the Nest and Facebook feeds for the past week. The debates are over and voting is underway. By Friday, UBC will have a new AMS president, four new executives and a set of fresh representatives on Senate and the Board of Governors.

But, really, who cares?

Apathy seems to be the default attitude of many students, a sentiment that is reflected in voter trends.

Out of 54,329 registered students at UBC’s Vancouver campus, 20.7 per cent voted in last year’s AMS election — and that was considered a huge success. In 2016, that number was 12.5 per cent, and it was only marginally better the year before that.

Besides the fact that the AMS’ budget is funded by roughly $14 million of student fees, it represents the students of UBC in policy negotiations with the university administration and different levels of government. It is responsible for important parts of student life, including health insurance, club funding and management, and the popular U-Pass.

But the majority of students aren’t convinced it is worth it to click a few buttons and vote.

Why not vote?

The AMS has an outreach problem. Even if every student has an interest in the AMS, there’s a fundamental lack of knowledge about what those interests are.

“I think my previous apathy towards the elections mostly stemmed from a lack of understanding on my part about what the AMS is really responsible for and the responsibilities of each position,” said Emmanuel Sales, a third-year computer science student. “Even as a participant of a couple of student clubs, the details were pretty hazy to me.”

When it comes to elections, students often don’t know that elections are even happening, how to vote, what the key issues are in the election or what the candidates stand for.

“I don’t usually know the candidates,” confessed Jewel Pang, a third-year student in international relations. “If I have met them ... they’re strangers and they’re usually weird or annoying me outside the Nest.”

“When you get into arenas where it is hard to stick a label on a candidate, that means that the cost of finding out what the candidate stands for skyrockets.”

— Dr. Richard Johnston, Canada Research Chair in public opinion, elections and representation

While it is easy enough to participate in AMS elections — voting is done online using your Campus Wide Login — other barriers exist. One is the cost in time and effort it takes to find out what each candidate’s platform is.

“One of the most important pieces of information that federal and provincial elections have is the party to which the candidates belong,” said UBC Professor Dr. Richard Johnston, who holds the Canada Research Chair in public opinion, elections, and representation. “That tells you 90 per cent of what you need to know.”

Because there are no party affiliations or slates in AMS elections, students cannot make assumptions about what a candidate stands for, requiring actual effort on their part to find out a candidate’s position on key issues.

According to Johnston, when deciding whether to vote in an election or not, voters will consider whether the candidates offer a choice that truly represents a difference among alternatives.

“When you get into arenas where it is hard to stick a label on a candidate, that means that the cost of finding out what the candidate stands for skyrockets,” said Johnston.

A second barrier to voting is the perceived unimportance of the election issues. And as an advocacy organization first and foremost, the AMS is limited in what it can actually do.

“The system [of bureaucracy] the AMS works within is very difficult to overcome,” said fourth-year philosophy student Walden Putterman. “It’s kind of impenetrable.”

Pang agrees with this sentiment.

“I don’t think they have an influence in how UBC is run,” said Pang. “You just hear about Block Party about how they don’t have enough money to book good artists.”

Another explanation: as young people, students simply have not developed the habit of voting.

“Turning out and voting is an acquired taste,” said Johnston. “So we’re talking about a student population that hasn’t acquired the taste.”

Filling the gaps

All of these barriers can be overcome — to some extent.

Last year, former Elections Administrator (EA) and current VP Academic Max Holmes ran one of the most successful AMS elections campaigns in recent history. Voter turnout in that election almost doubled from the previous year, from 12.6 to 20.7 per cent.

“We’re trying our best this year to fill in the gaps wherever we possible can with the resources we have.”

— Filza Raza, AMS Elections Administrator

The key to success, according to Holmes, was having the Elections Committee focus solely on getting voters to vote instead of advertising what the candidates stand for.

“[In previous years] we advertised trying to get more information about candidates and, truthfully, that’s the job of candidates,” Holmes said. “The Elections Committee should be focused on getting people out to vote.”

For the first time, the Elections Committee ran targeted advertisements on Facebook and engaged students on Reddit. It also set up polling stations in first-year dormitories, with the idea of bringing the election to students.

“If you could get a first year out to vote for the first time, that’s hopefully someone you can get to vote for their entire UBC career,” Holmes said.

The EA for this year’s election, Filza Raza, is trying to build upon the efforts of last year. According to Raza, the majority of the committee’s $30,000-plus budget is allocated towards get-out-the-vote efforts. Some of that money is paying for a dedicated communications staffer, the first time the Elections Committee has funded such a role.

This year the Elections Committee is also trying to stay away from events that require students to show up at a specific place and time. Instead, they’re setting up in high-traffic areas such as the lower atrium of the Nest to engage students face-to-face.

“A lot of students don’t want to go out of their way to actually go to these events,” said Raza. “Instead, we’re going to place our events in locations where students already are.”

And they are on the right track, according to Johnston.

“Get out the vote efforts or engaging people in a [face-to-face] conversation about them voting makes them more likely to vote,” he said. Unfortunately, the staff required to run a successful get-out-the-vote operation is likely beyond the resources of the Elections Committee and all of the candidates combined.

“We’re trying our best this year to fill in the gaps wherever we possible can with the resources we have,” said Raza.

Running the race

One way to draw people to the polls is something outside the Elections Committee’s influence: who decides to run. Candidates who draw widespread attention — positive or negative — are crucial to motivating people to vote.

“Some of that can be image and personal characteristics, some of that can also be whether that candidate stands for a set of issues that resonates with people,” explained Johnston. He emphasized that a positive message, grassroots support, and the right platform can push even disaffected demographics to vote, citing the example of unexpected youth turnout in the 2015 Canadian federal election

That goes for AMS candidates, too. Holmes said that candidates who can hone in on key sets of issues are often instrumental in increasing interest in elections.

“People are sometimes selectively interested in things that the AMS does — they might not be interested in anything except our financial accountability,” explained Holmes.

Just as good candidates can draw support, bad ones attract votes against them. Some students interviewed for this article came to the polls for the first time to block Franz Kurtzke’s radical bid for AMS VP Academic in last September’s by-election.

But while more and better candidates almost always means more votes, there’s little the elections committee can do to control that.

“If you have a small group of people running in elections, you have less outreach,” said Holmes.

Choosers and losers

Because the candidates are fairly few, they are often chosen by a small group of students who always cast their ballots. They’re the potential ‘selectorate’ — the demographic whose votes often decide the election’s outcome.

“Every election, there’s always the 10 per cent that show up and vote,” said Holmes.

Unlike generally apathetic voters, the students in this 10 per cent have an active stake in the outcome of the election. They’re club executives, Greek members and AMS employees who don’t mind the cost of researching candidates because they already know how the election result can either benefit or harm them.

“They have a buy-in into the election,” explained Holmes.

Ten per cent might not seem like much, but in low-turnout elections, it might be all it takes to win. In 2016, when only 12.6 per cent of students showed up the polls, that ten percent represent about 80 percent of the total turnout.

That doesn’t mean that this ‘selectorate’ is a unified voting bloc, secretly picking AMS executives from the shadows. But parts of it do coordinate their votes, and that has an impact. Greek candidates, for example, have historically been overrepresented in the AMS, thanks in part to mobilization on the part of the Inter-Fraternity Council and Greek organizations to get their members to the polls.

While 500 fraternity members is miniscule in a student population of 54,000-plus, it’s a powerful force in the context of 2016 election, when less than 5,000 people cast a vote for either presidential candidate — 14.4 per cent of the grand total of 5,726 abstained — and only an average of 4,000 students cast a vote for other executive positions, with an average of 30 per cent abstaining.

If only 10 per cent of students are guaranteed voters, odds are that candidates are trying extra hard to court those groups with policies and promises that specifically benefit them.

“If you’re not part of the voting electorate, there is not much of an incentive for politicians to look after you,” said Johnston.

That wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if more people outside that 10 per cent could be convinced to vote. But that’s easier said than done.

Out of the loop

It is Jason Meng’s first year at UBC, but the science student said he’s already decided he’s not voting in the AMS election.

“I’ve never been a part of [the AMS] from the start,” said Meng. “It has nothing to do with me.”

“I don’t feel connected or engaged at all with the AMS.”

— Jason Meng, first-year science student

Meng is one of thousands of commuters at UBC to whom the AMS and its services are either unknown or simply not useful. If ‘the ‘10 per cent’ have the most buy-in, commuters, who feel like they’re low on the AMS’ list of priorities, have the least.

“I don’t feel connected or engaged at all with the AMS,” said Meng. “It’s a different entity.”

This year, the Elections Committee has increased its efforts to reach out to commuters — but there’s only so much they can do.

“One thing that works is engaging with voters in physical spaces that aren’t going to necessarily be involved in the election — commuters when they’re getting off the bus, for example,” explained Holmes, describing feedback from his time as EA.

Meng and other interviewed students acknowledged that the root of the problem is that many commuter students don’t feel engaged in the UBC community and are less likely to be informed about AMS policies even when they benefit them. Pang, for example, wasn’t aware that the AMS helped to implement and maintain the U-Pass, a vital help to commuters’ budgets: “I like that program a lot,” she said.

The result is that commuters feel the AMS doesn’t make policy for them, which means they don’t vote and thus don’t influence policy — a vicious cycle of disengagement with no easy solution.

“I feel like [the AMS] serves a niche group,” said Meng.

‘No easy solution’

Whether it’s on a national scale or in the context of a university, elections are the most fundamental accountability mechanism that exist in a democracy. At UBC, the lack of voter participation has created a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement. And while the Elections Committee is pushing to change that, it is not something that is going to be solved overnight.

Nonetheless, Raza implores people to exercise their vote.

“The people that you’re electing are people that have so much influence over day to day university matters, what issues should be lobbied, what big events should happen over the year,” said Raza.

“It’s important for students, especially if they want to complain about things, to actually go and cast a vote.”