Examining AMS voter turnout

Voter turnout for AMS elections historically higher than most other Ontario University student unions

Seventy-five people attended a debate featuring VP University Affairs candidates from Team CES and SDL last night at Jean Royce Hall. Voter-turnout for AMS elections is consistently higher than other Student Unions.
Seventy-five people attended a debate featuring VP University Affairs candidates from Team CES and SDL last night at Jean Royce Hall. Voter-turnout for AMS elections is consistently higher than other Student Unions.
Photo: 
Using information provided by AMS Information Officer Greg McKellar, the above graph shows the change in voter turnout for AMS elections over the past 20 years.
Using information provided by AMS Information Officer Greg McKellar, the above graph shows the change in voter turnout for AMS elections over the past 20 years.
Photo: 

Despite attracting less than half of students to vote in last year’s AMS election, Queen’s 40 per cent voter turnout makes it one of the highest among Ontario Student Unions.

The University of Toronto’s Students’ Union (UTSU) saw 18 per cent of their 44,000 members vote in its election last year.

“Last year we were able to double our voter-turnout,” current UTSU president Adam Awad told the Journal, adding that turnout averages have remained in the 10-15 per cent range over the past decade.

“Some people will talk about [the election], but it’s sort of the same people who always talk about it,” he said.“Most students care about other things like tuition fees or academic rights.”

In the past five years, AMS elections have consistently drawn turnouts of over 30 per cent. Current AMS Vice President of Operations Ben Hartley and his team clinched last year’s election with 54.5 per cent of the vote.

Hartley said interest in Student government elections is dependent on dialogue between candidates. During last year’s race, a platform point regarding the installation of solar panels at Queen’s snowballed into a campus-wide debate on the issue.

“Voters at Queen’s award good debate and healthy debate,” Hartley said, adding that AMS initiatives like streaming debates online have increased the profile of such dialogue.

“When it comes to getting students involved with these debates, it involves making them more accessible in content format,” he said.

Hartley said a recent trend in campus campaigns involving DIY videos have shown to be an effective method of raising voter awareness. By Friday, executive candidate teams CES and SDL had promotional videos uploaded to their respective websites, Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts.

“If you’re campaigning and you have 25 people on your campaign team and you get 25 people to take one piece of social media, a video or a poster, and post on people’s [Facebook] walls … it expands exponentially,” Hartley said. “Everyone in the whole school will have that piece show up in their [Facebook] News Feed.

“It’s about proliferating into where students will absorb media because it’s different now. We’re seeing that students make decisions through information that’s accessible to them.”

Last year, Guelph University’s Central Student Association elections drew 25.5 per cent of the school’s undergraduate population—a less than one-point increase on the previous year’s voter turnout. The University of Ottawa’s Student government saw around 10 per cent turnout last year—a significant drop from 2009’s 27.9 per cent.

Scott Matthews, an associate professor of Political Science specializing in voter turnout, said student government elections don’t have the same built-in pull factor that other elections have.

“In national elections especially, there is a widely-held belief that participation is important, a ‘civic duty’ of every voter,” Matthews told the Journal via email.  “It’s not clear that the beliefs about national elections will have any implications for attitudes to AMS elections.”

This year’s Kingston municipal elections in October saw 36 per cent of voters cast their ballot at polling stations using a paper-ballot system. After transitioning into online voting last year, the AMS saw three-point improvement on 2009’s paper ballot votes.

“I’m not sure if there’s a clear answer on [whether online voting affects voter turnout],” Matthews said. “All other things being equal, however, if it makes voting easier, then it should increase turnout, especially in (relatively) low turnout elections.”

The Wilfred Laurier University Student Union (WLUSU) will switch its electoral method to an online system this year. WLUSU elections last year drew a 20 per cent voter turnout—10 per cent lower than the previous year.

Mike Lakusiak, News Editor at the Laurier’s student newspaper The Cord, said WLUSU elections don’t generally garner much attention from the Laurier’s student population. “A large number of students simply don’t care about Student Union elections,” Lakusiak said. “If you’re involved in a club you vote and if you’re not and you’re off campus and you don’t care, then you don’t.”

In the past 20 years, AMS voter turnouts peaked at 45 per cent in the 1991 election. Turnout rates dipped below the 30 per cent mark in the late 90s and early 2000s, but have stabilized in recent years. Professor Matthews said the geography of the Queen’s community gives it an advantage over other universities in terms of voter turnout for student government elections.

“This must be connected to the general level of student involvement in campus life, which, as we are regularly informed, is relatively intense at Queen’s,” he said.  “At larger universities in urban areas, many of which are really “commuter campuses,” it’s easy to see why students might be—and feel that they are—less connected to each other than students at Queen’s.”

The debate featuring VP Operations candidates will be held today at 7 p.m. in Common Ground. The presidential debate will be held tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the Lower Ceilidh of the JDUIC.

Across Ontario

The Journal surveyed other Student Unions across the province to determine how voter turnout to AMS elections compares.

Guelph University
2010: 25.5 per cent
2009: 25 per cent
2008: 25 per cent

Laurier University
2010: 20 per cent
2009: 30 per cent
2008: 10 per cent

University of Ottawa
2010: 10 per cent
2009: 27.2 per cent
2008: 12.2 per cent

University of Toronto
2010: 18 per cent
2009: 9 per cent
2008: ~10 per cent

Jake Edmiston

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