There is an assumption that many university students just don't care about student politics. That may have been true in the past and if you look around you can find confirmation for this. But a few students' union elections are starting to challenge that stereotype. To get a big turnout in an election, all you need is an aggressive campaign, controversial issues and union executives accountable to the voters.
In Halifax, Nova Scotia over 60 per cent of the student body went to the polls for the Saint Francis Xavier SU election this year. Why? Was there something in the local water in the filthy Halifax docks? The chief returning officer and the election staff went on an aggressive push this year, with cardboard signs and banners about voting in the election. Post-it notes telling students to vote were stuck on every door in residence buildings and a group of students wearing T-shirts promoting voting performed impromptu dance routines. But the two things that made the biggest difference were multiple forums, where the candidates got exposed to various students at different places on the campus and a blog covering the election, where films of the candidates' forums and platforms and directions on how to vote were posted in a timely manner. If any students wanted to avoid studying or learn more about voting, they could go to the blog. Basically, there was no way to avoid the news about the election.
Last November at the University of Ottawa over 6,000 students turned out to vote in a special referendum about the Student Federation of the U of O joining the Canadian Federation of Students. The debates about joining the federal lobbying group and some problems with CFS itself, like its lack of accountability and lawsuits against student media, generated a lot of excitement. Thousands of students decided to come out, see what the fuss was about and share their opinion. Generally, that means referendums and controversial issues, like CFS membership, can lead to more interest in student politics, especially when many students are curious about what their SU executives are doing with their fees.
The University of British Columbia Alma Mater Society promoted their election with the tagline, "It's your millions." That line pointed out that the student government receives over $8 million in fees from students. It stressed the importance of voting and transparency. Who wants to see millions of dollars going down the drain due to incompetent executives and staff? Even if it's cynical, it still works because students don't want to see corruption and leaders ignoring voices and concerns in the local government. Further, several blogs like Radical Beer Party, an official AMS election blog, and the Ubyssey newspaper covered the election, which created hype and attention. The result? Over 6,500 students voted, which was UBC's highest turnout in 22 years.
Of course, one way to get more attention for a student election is to play up the "popularity contest" aspect. At the University of Western Ontario a presidential candidate, Emily Rowe, based her campaign video on Discovery Channel's popular "Boom De Ya Da." That video received over 8,000 hits on YouTube and was cited as a "stroke of genius" by Macleans magazine for its catchy tune. The result? She got 2,000 more votes than the runner-up. Many popular candidates like to run on name recognition, like former successful Dinos athletes, sorority or fraternity pledge members, people who are involved in clubs or even former student journalists (such as your handsome columnist Dan Pagan. Gals, he's now single!). There is nothing wrong with that as long as they can offer a different platform with ideas for debate or bring diverse experience to the table. Just look at Jeremy Zhao and how he was able to get hundreds of students to vote for him in the last two elections here. He may be like Don Quixote, fighting hopelessly against unsympathetic government figures and students who get fed up with his unique sense of humour, but he was able to get more votes than a few serious candidates and got more students talking about the election, just like during his Calgary mayoral run. In a way, promoting elections fall on candidates and their "fans," along with the election staff.
Here at the University of Calgary, the turnout in this year's SU general election was 13.5 per cent. That might seem high, but before you start opening wine bottles and celebrating, remember the turnout in last October's byelection was 15 per cent. The last time there was more than 15 per cent turnout in University of Calgary SU election was in 2004, when there were over 90 candidates running for 40 spots, two extensive slates and controversial referendum questions, like the UPass. The turnout? Twenty-nine per cent! The differences between this election and 2004 are drastic: over 20 candidates running, slate/political parties shaking things up, quasi-famous candidates running on name recognition and aggressive SU election promotion. The SU election staff need to look at the possibility of running an election blog like the U of O's "I will Vote" blog, which got many students to electronically vote. Finally, the SU needs to ensure as there's always something interesting, like a controversial issue or a famous candidate shaking things up. After all, who will pay attention to a dull election?