Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why don't students vote?

I've heard this question asked countless times- why don't students care about AMS elections and student politics? Why don't they vote? How do we get them to vote? I can't say I have a solution, but it seems to me that this has been a problem for quite some time, so campaign promises that eloquently explain how the candidate intends to increase student participation in the AMS sound a bit hollow. From my perspective, there are at least 3 factors contributing to student apathy- not just when it comes to AMS elections, but when it comes to student government and student societies in general.

1.) Lack of knowledge. I've been surprised how many of my friends I've talked to who have been surprised to learn that AMS elections are taking place. Some of those people then go and read up on the candidates or come to watch atrocious debates, but I think one of the primary factors in students not getting involved with organizations on campus is that they simply don't know what's out there. I don't think this is particularly surprising, given that UBC is a big commuter campus. However, while advertising campaigns and outreach efforts might help rope in some of the students who might potentially care about the AMS (or SUS or the AUS/CUS etc.), they don't always increase voter turnout or student involvement in politics because those who are interested will already voluntarily seek those organizations out, but also because lots of students simply don't care, which brings me to my 2nd point.

2.) Lack of association. Students feel like student government doesn't actually make that big of a difference. 'But surely they know about the UPass and the efforts of AMS execs there? Or other events that student societies put on?' you say. Kind of. But I would argue that students don't know who is responsible for terms of negotiation, or that even if they do, the association between the concepts of "UPass" and "AMS" isn't strong enough. Last year, shockingly few people realized that the referendum was held by the AMS- quite a few students I talked to thought it was the university itself that facilitated it. Similarly, while some students attending SUS events might know that their undergraduate society is hosting the event, some simply attend an event- not a SUS event, mind you, but, quite simply an event. Thus, students know which events are happening, but either don't know who is hosting the event, or else quickly forget and then assert that "the doesn't do anything." Which isn't always untrue, by the way. But it's a perception that needs to be fought nonetheless.

3.) Lost trust/hope/faith in the system. There are other students who know perfectly well what's going on, but refuse to get involved and to vote- and sometimes, I can't blame them. While student politics are sometimes exciting, the 'debates' today were nothing if not disappointing. The problem is that students keep seeing the same types of people running for office- people who seem like "hacks", for lack of a better word, or people who aren't hacks, but who are blatantly rude or disrespectful to students who are trying to make a difference or who they may have to work with (I'm looking at you, Iggy. Or Ignacio, rather, as I fear the nickname might spoil the positive associations I currently have with that nickname and the current Leader of the Opposition, who has some admirable qualities that don't involve insulting others; or for the hockey fans out there, Jerome Iginla), or who seem like hacks. Students also feel like the people running for office aren't actually addressing student needs, but rather promoting their own personal agendas/political careers. I feel that an effective leader must have the trust of their constituency, and I think that's simply not the case. Furthermore, there is such a lack of continuity between leaders that it becomes difficult to believe that anything can really be accomplished by any one leader in a given year. As a result, the impetus and incentive to vote, and the belief that one's vote will actually make a difference, is in essence quashed. When candidates make empty promises (please, I beg you, stop talking about lowering tuition and be realistic!), students clue in, and oddly enough, it doesn't hurt the candidate so much as it hurts the entire system. It is the entire system that loses the trust of its constituency. There have been interesting psychological studies on the matter that I won't go into, but I think this is a major reason for students not voting- and I can't blame them.

I'm not saying that we need an Obama to fix our system (as aMAZing as that would be). Rather, I'm saying that candidates need to be realistic, to realize how they are coming off to students, and to address students' concerns beyond making empty promises. I think that greater transparency on the AMS's behalf would start to address these concerns. The problem is that when even AMS candidates don't know that AMS meetings can be attended by anyone, without invitation, how are students who aren't interested in the system supposed to be informed about how the AMS operates (or at least how your portfolio operates)? And how are they supposed to trust a candidate who doesn't have such basic knowledge to represent them? The problem is that candidates simply don't present themselves well quite often. Joke candidates, while hilarious, should serve to raise important issues instead of making the entire business of elections seem like a joke by offering no substance. Don't get me wrong- I love joke candidates- but only when they actually raise good points that serious candidates must then address. Serious candidates, on the other hand, shouldn't be insulting, and nor should they bring in their personal cheerleaders to debates to ask rehearsed questions. And provincial politicking shouldn't come into the picture. Perhaps if candidates were a bit more respectful of each other, they could finally get some (much deserved, at times) respect from the average student, and increase student involvement in the system. Until then, all we can do is lament about the state of apathy prevalent in our student body.