This year’s AMS elections suffered from low engagement. But is the pandemic all to blame?

Four uncontested races, no referendums and the lowest voter turnout in over a decade; this round of all-virtual AMS general elections was one for the history books, but perhaps not in the best way.

Turnout fell by 40 per cent from last year, falling from 11.6 per cent to 6.9 per cent, the lowest it’s been since 2008. Two out of a record four uncontested executive races saw associate VPs step into their boss’s role. Cole Evans is the first AMS president in recent history to be re-elected in an uncontested race.

Between an online election and the consequences of the pandemic, the AMS has plenty of excuses for this year’s turnout woes. Evans said a “perfect storm of factors” caused this year’s “depressed” voter turnout.

According to AMS Chief Electoral Officer Isabelle Ava-Pointon, this year was an exception with students being “burnt out” because of the pandemic. She said the AMS worked to meet students “where they were at” and reached out to all AMS clubs and constituencies.

“It was a challenging year for everyone, we had to shift our focus entirely online. Normally, we have polling stations all around campus, which is really helpful ... and, there's [usually] a physical presence, which we just didn't have this year,” said Ava-Pointon.

But where does this land in AMS elections history? How does this compare to how other student societies fared this year? The general elections were unprecedented as they were occurring during a pandemic — making it virtually impossible to provide a benchmark of performance to assess elections while looking only internally.

Most importantly, what could the AMS do to boost student engagement in the future?

How did the AMS fare pre-COVID?

AMS elections engagement has always fluctuated, but the 2021 election was an outlier compared to recent years.

Before this year, voter turnout hadn’t been below 10 per cent since 2008. Turnout was at or above 20 per cent from 2017 through 2019, dropping to 11.6 per cent in 2020. The 2021 election experienced the lowest voter turnout in over a decade with a turnout of 6.9 per cent.

We dug deep into the turnout figures and how they change with an increase in uncontested races, slates, referendums and even the poster ban from 2020.

Here’s how voter turnout fared.

Voter turnout fell for the second year in a row to 6.9 per cent, the lowest figure since 2008.

However, a switch in voting systems in 2009 makes comparing turnout figures “a matter of apples and oranges,” said AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb.

The AMS moved from a first-past-the-post system to the Condorcet system as a means to curb “wasted votes” in tight elections. The preferential voting method meant that students could rank as many candidates as they like, potentially leading more students to vote.

['auto'] Lua Presidio

With Condorcet, the AMS gathered figures on overall voter turnout. Prior to 2009, turnout was calculated by the percentage of all students who voted in the presidential race alone, as overall voter turnout was not recorded. This might leave some discrepancies for students who abstained from voting in a certain race but voted for other races and referenda.

If you want an idea of how this might affect the numbers, overall turnout was 14.4 per cent in 2009, while turnout for the VP finance race was around 9.9 per cent — turnout for the presidential race could not feasibly be calculated.

Uncontested races are increasingly common.

This year’s election is the first to see four uncontested races since AMS elections were restructured in 1980 to let students directly vote for the AMS executive. Evans is the second AMS president to run uncontested and the second to be elected to office twice, but he is the first to do both concurrently.

Historically, the closest comparison to this year’s election was in 1988, when the AMS president, vice president, and director of external affairs races went uncontested — Goldfarb didn’t offer a reason why this happened, though stumbles in publicizing forums for Board and Senate candidates and election irregularities in the Board and Senate elections couldn’t have helped. Turnout that year was between 4.8 per cent and 6 per cent, depending on how you calculate turnout.

Slates likely curbed uncontested races, but didn’t affect turnout.

Slates were part of AMS elections since the 1940s. A slate consists of candidates running on the same platform for different positions.

Slates were used until 1975, when the AMS restructured to look like a parliamentary system where councillors elected the executive. The AMS overturned this system in 1980, returning to the original system of elected executives — and giving the opportunity for slates to reemerge. A single slate ran against independent candidates in 1982, but no members of the slate were elected. Slates didn’t successfully make a comeback until 1991.

The ubiquitous running of candidates from established progressive and moderate slates from 1991 through 2004, when slates were banned, caused races to be contested for every executive position in this time period.

“If voter turnout goes down because there’s only one person running for a position, and if that’s because there are no slates anymore, then you can say [abolishing slates affected voter turnout] indirectly,” said Goldfarb.

While uncontested races do seem to negatively impact voter turnout, slates didn’t seem to have increased it either. From 1991 to 2004, voter turnout oscillated just as much as after the abolishment of slates and were subject to swings from events like referendums.

Referendums, especially for U-Pass, are big pulls.

This year was the first time since 2009 that there were no referendums on the ballot.

Popular referendums often increase voter turnout. A child care referendum was on the ballot in 1996, an election that saw turnout spike at 20.6 per cent, the largest figure in over two decades. In 2013, a year which saw a U-Pass referendum, there was a record turnout of 43.9 per cent.

However, according to Goldfarb, voter turnout for an overall election isn’t equivalent to voters actually voting for executives on the ballot. For instance, turnout for the VP finance race in 2013 was around 14.3 per cent.

“It really increased again, three years in a row, [starting] in 2017,” said Goldfarb. “Max Holmes was the elections administrator that year ... Max was dedicated to hitting 20 per cent. And he did.”

Holmes told The Ubyssey in 2017 that allocating more funds towards social media advertising and placing polling stations in first-year residences were key in hitting 20 per cent turnout.

In an interview after the 2021 election, Holmes said that the lack of referendums on the 2021 general election ballot caused “the central part of the organization” to think it didn’t need to focus on elections as much this year.

Voter turnout remained at 20 per cent through 2019. Goldfarb suggested that two consecutive U-Pass referendums in 2018 and 2019 may have sustained high turnout. Due to negotiations with the most recent U-Pass contract, the next U-Pass referendum will likely be in 2024.

The jury’s out on posters, for now.

The 2020 election saw a sudden drop in turnout by about 10 per cent, but whether that was due to the poster ban that went into effect that year, a lack of a U-Pass referendum or other factors is up for grabs. And since this year was an all-virtual election, it’s still too soon to tell.

So what’s to blame? It’s complicated.

All in all, there are too many factors around voter turnout to blame it on one factor alone. Even with uncontested races, correlation does not mean complete causation. We’ll have to wait for retrospect to judge this year’s election, but we could look at how other student society elections fared for context.

Similar hurdles, but different outcomes

Student societies throughout British Columbia voiced a common refrain throughout the past year to explain low engagement: the first try at online elections, lack of on-campus activity, student stress and general apathy would almost surely make this year an outlier. But each university offered a range of results during this year’s election, and proposed changes provide different visions for student society elections going forward.

We took a look at the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), the University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS) and the Students’ Union Okanagan of UBC (SUO) to see what steps they took (or didn’t take) to address engagement in this year’s general elections.

Granted, each campus and student body is different in both makeup and size, and metrics like turnout levels aren’t necessarily comparable from school to school. Nonetheless, these three schools represent some of the largest student unions in the province outside of the AMS, so they may be able to provide us insight into student union elections during an unprecedented year.

Simon Fraser University

SFSS elections have faced notoriously low turnout over the past four years, and the addition of online elections and an uncontested presidential race did not help their cause. Turnout dropped to around 3.3 per cent this year.

According to Farhan Shahriar, chief commissioner of the SFSS Independent Election Commission (IEC), addressing elections engagement is a shared responsibility between the IEC, the SFSS executive and the SFSS at large.

“I think everyone plays a role in the election cycle. It’s not just the candidates, it’s everyone, because this is a student-run election cycle for students by students,” said Shahriar.

This year’s election saw the SFSS executive undergo a structural shake-up, adding one additional executive seat. The two races that were uncontested — president and VP university affairs — both fielded multiple candidates at the start of campaigning. However, the appearance of returning associate VPs and one singular slate may have caused competition to back out of the running.

Fellow IEC commissioners noted that slates have their pros and cons. While slates have the potential to bring students to the polls, previous commissioners proposed banning slates to curb a “toxic electoral atmosphere,” though the IEC’s ability to do this on its own is unlikely.

In addition, getting new commissioners up to speed on the policies and procedures behind their work is a cyclical issue. Recent changes give more time for commissioners to settle in, as the new IEC will be hired to thirteen-month terms instead of the current four-month terms.

However, discussions around the IEC’s recommendations regarding get-out-the-vote campaigns on social media revealed wider rifts around engagements in student politics on campus. While the society’s annual general meeting had its largest turnout in 15 years, raffle prizes likely served as an outsized incentive.

Reaching the broad base of commuter students and international students who may not stick around campus the whole day and convincing them of the society’s relevance was a tough sell prior to the pandemic. But now, the simple, taken-for-granted interactions of in-person elections are also off limits.

“It helps a lot when we’re able to actually table in the hallways, because then people who wouldn’t check their emails or go to clubs, you can start talking to them,” said IEC Commissioner Kelsey Lucente.

University of Victoria

The UVSS elections came a month later than the other universities we compared, but they couldn’t overcome the prevailing trend of poor turnout.

UVSS elections wrapped up on March 26, with a voter turnout of 6.6 per cent. The UVSS elections cycle began with only two contested races, but after the disqualification of a candidate, it was left with only one contested executive seat, mirroring the AMS.

To encourage a broad range of candidates, the UVSS held an electoral open house to inform students interested in running and hold open conversations with current directors. UVSS also created a handbook detailing each position and how to campaign.

“We tried to make things a lot more accessible so that anyone, not just those who are already connected [to UVSS], are able to run,” said Sarina de Havelyn, UVSS director of outreach and university relations.

This year’s UVSS elections were the first with slates banned wholesale. The 2020 election had allowed for candidate “cooperatives,” but they were a practically ineffective solution. De Havelyn described cooperatives as “pseudo-slates,” as they allowed students to run on unified platforms with shared campaign managers so long as they did not formally endorse each other.

“Even the transition from slates to cooperatives resulted in the same [issue] where we had two main groups who were adversarial,” said de Havelyn, who herself had been elected within a cooperative.

De Havelyn views the society’s efforts as a success because despite a lack of competition within races, she says this year’s election saw an increase in candidates from outside the UVSS and candidates she believes wouldn’t have run under the slate system.

“We have students who are interested, for their own sake, in participating in UVSS at a greater capacity rather than just friends of friends who are being tapped on the shoulder,” said de Havelyn. “[They’re] the type of people who have a real passion for serving students, and that's really exciting.”

Nonetheless, voter turnout fell to 6.6 per cent from 14.8 per cent the year prior. Emily Lowan, UVSS’s director of campaigns and community relations, told The Martlet that the elections office did “everything they could” to encourage students to vote, including emails, social media advertising and a hot sauce meme video. Lowan said that removal from campus life may have contributed to lower turnout.

UBC Okanagan

The SUO managed to break the trend of lower turnouts, fielding candidates for all their executive positions. The elections had a voter turnout 10.8 per cent, a nudge up from the 2020 turnout of 10.1 per cent.

Tyleigh Massey-Leclerc, SUO’s chief returning officer, said the student union wanted to improve election engagement, not simply survive. She believes that the SUO elections were successful this year due to the hard work of the elections office, the candidates and UBCO’s student body.

“I’ve seen a lot of advocacy and initiatives surrounding sexual violence, surrounding racism, anti-racism, even international tuition hikes. I think students have really shown a lot of solidarity and have just had enough,” she said.

Massey-Leclerc thinks that students’ desire to see change implemented in their institutions helped the SUO to successfully draw out candidates.

The elections office promoted the elections and nominations of candidates via its Instagram account. The cross-promotion on the main SUO Instagram account was mainly responsible for the success of this technique. The SUO has 4,302 followers on Instagram as of publishing, eclipsing that of the AMS.

Massey-Leclerc said that their Instagram promotion was also successful due to candidates and students reposting election materials.

“Instagram is essentially a hub at this point, and a lot more popular than Facebook these days. I think it just gives students an excuse to be able to see the electoral process compared to previous years where no one would see what we’re posting on Facebook,” said Massey-Leclerc.

The 2021 elections are over. So what now?

In the eyes of sitting Chief Electoral Officer Ava-Pointon, engagement in this year’s elections could have been worse.

“It was a lot like other years where you see spikes [in voting] after big pushes like email blasts and you always have that early crowd,” said Ava-Pointon. “I think trends were pretty similar, it's just the numbers were much lower. And, honestly, they weren't as low as I feared.”

Ava-Pointon attributed low turnout to uncontested races, fewer people living on campus and general student stress during the pandemic. She said that keeping a lower signature requirement for nominations could help raise competition within races and engaging with students about the AMS’s role in their day-to-day lives could entice them to the polls, or even to become candidates themselves.

“I think the AMS as an organization does provide lots of services, but it's often not the most visible,“ said Ava-Pointon. “I think a lot of people this year felt that [the AMS] didn't matter.”

The AMS elections committee is currently conducting an internal review and is slated to release its report sometime this spring. In addition, AMS Council struck an ad-hoc committee on increasing student engagement in AMS elections, with the committee’s findings expected in September. However, the recommendations to come out of these reports will signal a great deal of work for election committees and AMS executives to come.

“[The elections office] can’t be responsible for making sure people vote,” said Ava-Pointon. Ava-Pointon believes it’s the responsibility of the AMS as an institution to engage student voters, as the level of outreach required to implement changes cannot fit into one election season.

That being said, some other student societies succeeded where the AMS failed this year.

Social media

Contrary to the AMS, the SUO cited both its competition within races and voter turnout to be primarily social media based. The SUO said it didn’t pay for any advertising.

While the AMS said candidates struggled to implement Facebook and Instagram advertising due to strict rules around election ads and misinformation, the SUO’s media strategy circumvented this, as they opted for word of mouth and Instagram reposts rather than paid ads to get its messages out.

For this to work at the AMS, the society would need to raise student engagement on its Instagram account. VP Administration-elect Lauren Benson ran on a platform of communication and believes that improving the AMS’s social media might help not only make the society more accessible but alleviate student discontent toward the AMS.

For reference, the AMS’s 3,882 Instagram followers as of publishing make up only 6.4 per cent of its 60.980 members, if we’re assuming that all accounts following the AMS were of current UBC students — an unlikely assumption.

Holmes said he believes the elections team did their best, but AMS communications didn’t appear to prioritize the election.

“It should be a wake up call for the AMS that, just because you're putting more money into communications and engagement doesn't mean that you're putting it towards the right priorities,” Holmes said.

Evans agreed on the importance of communication in an interview with The Ubyssey.

“We need to take as [the] AMS a real hard look at everything that we do with elections to make sure that we have a unified approach across both the elections committee and our communications department.”

Increase candidate diversity

Both the UVSS and SUO focused on fielding diverse candidates by making executive positions appear more accessible to students who weren’t already familiar with student government. How-to-run guides were common elements, and while the AMS doesn’t currently provide one, Ava-Pointon acknowledged that a resource guide might be beneficial.

Last August, AMS Council passed a series of recommendations to increase diversity in AMS executive elections, though they are not binding and have yet to come to fruition.

Apathy within an institution

But voter apathy remains a problem for all student societies.

“When there’s voter apathy, you aren’t getting that representation from all across the different [groups on campus] ... so you aren’t getting that diversity in your student government,” said SFSS commissioner Jason Thiara.

Within our own community, Ava-Pointon said to AMS Council that AMS elections need to change.

"The AMS as an organization needs to convince student voters that the AMS matters,” she wrote.

— With files from Elif Kayali and Charlotte Alden