Students campaign against voter apathy

Smaller student societies experience higher voter turnout in 2015 elections

Illustration from Jan. 28, 1986 of the Journal, Issue 29, Vol. 113.
Illustration from Jan. 28, 1986 of the Journal, Issue 29, Vol. 113.
Credit: 
Journal File Illustration
Alexander Savides and Stephen Penstone with their "5-OH and Go Vote" campaign poster.
Alexander Savides and Stephen Penstone with their "5-OH and Go Vote" campaign poster.
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Some students and professors believe that voter turnout in student government elections will never improve.

Last month’s AMS winter referendum saw 34.6 per cent voter turnout — a 1.46 per cent increase from 2014. Only 29 per cent of ASUS members voted in the 2014 ASUS elections, with an increase of 11.2 per cent in 2015.

In the Engineering Society (EngSoc) election, though, 53 per cent of students voted — 13.2 per cent higher than last year, after a concerted awareness campaign to drive turnout higher.

Political studies professor Heather Bastedo said voter turnout on university campuses is typically low, because the majority of the student body isn’t necessarily involved in politics.

“There’s been a history on campus politics from what I understand, that they’re busy with their studies and the stakes are relatively low on their life,” Bastedo said. “They don’t see how it affects them.”

Bastedo has taught at Queen’s for two years, with a focus on youth voter engagement and specializes in youth politics.

She said younger people who are less engaged with national politics generally look for politicians to engage with citizens, and for elected representatives to have a basic idea of the issues they face.

Bastedo added that the same phenomenon likely persists at the university government level. Student leaders, she said,

are fighting to get the attention of students that are busy with school, extracurricular activities and jobs.

Since the 2009 AMS fall referendum, students have been able to cast their votes online, with the purpose of increasing turnout.

Bastedo said the introduction of online voting isn’t enough to engage students.

“If you’re not interested it doesn’t matter whether it’s a click of the button. You’re just not interested,” she said. “If human beings are interested in something, they’re going to engage, and if they feel like they have an impact, they will engage.” Unlike Bastedo, AMS Commissioner of Internal Affairs Claire Cathro said online voting is what will help draw in more student voters.

The AMS changed to a new online voting system — from VoteNet to SimplyVoting — last summer. Cathro said this made voting more accessible and allowed all ballots to be in one place.

“Students were allowed to sign in using their NetIDs and password, which made a big impact with the ease for students to reach the ballot,” said Cathro, ArtSci ’15. “[It] probably had a large impact in voter turnout in both referendums.”

With 34.6 per cent turnout, five of six opt-out fee proposals passed in the winter 2015 referendum. MUSE Magazine was the only group that was unsuccessful.

Cathro said there needs to be more of a collaborative approach to advertising the referendum between the AMS and the clubs that propose fees.

These groups, she added, need to demonstrate how important these elections are to students and how winning their opt-out fee could positively influence the Queen’s student body.

“We’re competing for students’ attention when there’s a lot of different things that they’re passionate about and care about,” she said. “What needs to be done is make students understand how relevant the voting process is to their day-to-day lives at Queen’s.”

Cathro said some smaller faculties — like Concurrent Education and Engineering and Applied Science — have the advantage of being a more cohesive unit, making it easier to reach out to prospective voters.

“You can tailor a message, demonstrating to students that it affects their lives,” she said.

Alex Blaine, ConEd ’15, said voting campaigns are an effective way to grab the attention of the everyday university student.

“I remember a few years ago the AMS put out a video about voting using the idea of ‘My First Time’,” she told the Journal via Facebook.

“It was creative and entertaining, which I think made the voting process more appealing.” Although she’s graduating this year, Blaine said she voted in both the CESA and AMS elections last month.

She said one way to engage students in student government elections is to create a presence on campus and on social media.

“I have never been involved in student government, but I like seeing students sharing their ideas and commitment to it.”

The message EngSoc relayed this year was “5-OH and Go Vote” — a campaign launched with the goal of convincing 50 per cent of engineering students to vote in the society’s executive election.

EngSoc Vice-President of Student Affairs Alexander Savides and Director of Communications Stephen Penstone both said they were excited to reach 53 per cent turnout.

Penstone, Sci ’15, said it’s the first year the society has advertised the elections on that large a scale. Voter turnout for EngSoc has gradually increased in recent years — from 32 per cent in 2012 to 35 per cent in 2013 and 39.8 per cent in 2014.

“If you let the information become available and make it clear, people will go out and look it up,” Penstone said. “It hasn’t been clear a lot in the past.”

EngSoc advertised their voting campaign with three different kinds of posters, placed all over engineering buildings and classrooms. They also pushed the “5-OH and Go Vote” slogan on social media, created a promotional video and live-streamed the executive debates.

Savides, Sci ’15, said EngSoc harnessed the “collaborative and competitive spirit” of engineering students to push them to vote.

“Finding a message that resonates with the group that you’re targeting really helps a lot,” Savides said. “Targeting the demographics that you’d like to vote really helps with the correct message to help them engage.” To increase turnout in larger-scale elections, Savides said, “You would have to target the demographic and almost challenge the Queen’s community — like a call to action.”

But even a call to action won’t attract all students.

Dan Le, Sci ’15, said he has never voted in an EngSoc election and doesn’t care about voting.

“It might be that I’m lazy, or even that I just don’t have that big of an opinion on things,” Le said. “The only time I’ve voted for anything was for mayor of my town.” Le said he wasn’t aware of the EngSoc voting campaign because he doesn’t tend to notice posters in classrooms and hallways.

“I think there was a better turnout because they set a goal of how many students they wanted to vote,” he said. “With a goal in mind, there is more initiative to get the word out and the people running and that are in EngSoc are very determined people.”

Danielle Bengall, ArtSci ’15, said it’s difficult to attract more voters because students are often invested in their own lives. She added that it’s difficult to assess how to make them more interested in elections.

“Especially with the increasing number of first year students, I think it’d be increasingly difficult to cater to them,” Bengall told the Journal via email.

“I mean some of them have never been able to vote in an election period, let alone one that could actually shape their experience.”

Presenting positive changes the student government has made in the past and how it has benefitted students, she added, would be effective in spurring turnout.

Bengall said she voted in the winter referendum because she sees voting as an important way for people to have their say.

“Every vote counts and it wouldn’t be fair to eliminate the worth a voter has in the future of his/her school,” she said. “People like knowing they have a voice and say in their own future.”

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