Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Campaign tips, or, how students learned to stop reading and love the familiar.

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.