Opinion: Election Turnout is up- but is credibility down?

This piece from a contributor that wishes to remain anonymous looks at voter incentivisation 

Across the UK this year we’ve seen another significant rise in the number and percentage of students voting in SU elections. There’s no doubt that this is in part due to increased levels of SU activity, increased political engagement and improved get out the vote activity- but this increase has also coincided with a sudden proliferation of ‘voter incentivisation’.

This spring, I’ve witnessed one SU after another proudly declare that they have increased their voter turnout and smashed all records (if you’ve missed it, the NUS Union Cloud twitter account broadcasts these updates relentlessly). For me this is then followed by visiting their website in the hope of discovering the magic secret behind this sudden surge in democratic engagement. Maybe it’s due to a mass politicisation following the NSS boycott, maybe it is generation Brexit finally finding its voice or maybe it’s the result of year round work by Students’ Unions engaging their members in a relevant and innovative way.

However, upon closer inspection it appears that most Students’ Unions are increasing their voter turnout by offering £10 vouchers for local branch of a national chicken shop chain, free ice cream for a day or a prize draw for the latest apple gadget.

There is no doubt that incentivising voting will increase turnout, and we have all seen first-hand how this kind of incentivisation can increase participation amongst even the most apathetic of students. At my institution, a highly successful student survey will receive a 20% turnout- but call it the NSS and link it to a prize draw for an iPad, and suddenly turnout rockets to over 80%.

It used to be that gimmicks in SU elections were provided by the candidates and the credible messaging came from the SU- but now it feels increasingly like it is the opposite way around. If a candidate gained votes offering nothing more than to bring a puppy room onto campus or to negotiate 50% at the local Italian food chain they would probably be branded by the SU cognoscenti as lacking credibility and populist.

According to conventional wisdom it is far better for a candidate to spend a year building a relationship with the student population, understanding their issues and then making themselves accessible. Yet so many of our unions seem to have opted for the easy way out. The logical question is where does this end? We could feasibly offer students £100 cash to vote in our elections, and I’m sure a majority of them would. Of course the union wouldn’t have any money left to actually do anything, but if we only judge success by turnout then why would we bother doing anything anyway?

I don’t blame individual unions or individual staff- the problem is compounded by NUS showcasing ‘votes for puppies’ as being innovative, and there is no doubt that the obsession with using voter turnout as a crude metric to measure engagement by the sector and universities puts enormous pressure onto unions to find a way to generate quantity rather than quality engagement. Faced with a national movement lacking new ideas, a union obsessed with announcing a record breaking year and a university using election turnout to determine the credibility of the SU it would take a democracy co-ordinator with incredible ideals and bravery to focus on democratic quality rather than quantity.

The point isn’t that unions should stop trying to encourage students to vote. But I do think that we need to fundamentally rethink what the purpose of union elections are. My starter for 10 would be:

  1. Turnout is a way judge the success of year round engagement rather than of the elections themselves.
  2. We should collectively stop this ‘mine is bigger than yours’ approach to boasting about the size of our turnout- how often does your SU take to social media to boldly announce that you have successfully resolved a record number of advice cases?
  3. We should look at sectors beyond our own, where there are examples of charities who are electing trustees and executive committee members with 100% turnout who don’t give away charitable funds to those who vote.
  4. We should demand that NUS produces more materials to support SU’s to engage the 80% of students who don’t vote in our elections rather than fetishising those who do.
  5. The next time your VC says the SU would be more relevant if more people voted ask them why? The local MP isn’t judged by this metric, the chair of the local parish church isn’t judged by this metric, and the staff trade union certainly isn’t judged by this metric.
  6. If by the end of the election students haven’t been discussing issues, their interests and the way their interests have to be negotiated with others collectively, what was the point?

Above all we should probably ask ourselves the difficult question. Why is it that 80% of students don’t vote in SU elections? Why is it that we don’t seem relevant to them? Why is it that our work and structures don’t work for them? I’m going to guess that the answer to this isn’t a bigger puppy room or a £20 chicken shop voucher.

Posted in Opinion.

6 Comments

  1. Without wanting to get into a long discussion about the morality of incentivising voting. If we think getting people to take part in democracy is generally a good thing, then I don’t see an issue with rewarding what we deem to be good behaviours.

    This piece comes across very negatively and a bit bitter. I’m sure if Students ’ Unions couldn’t afford to do in their Trustee Boards wouldn’t allow it. In my experience most of these deals come as a result of having good commercial relationships with local businesses.

  2. As a Union that increased election engagement to a record level this year by using and incentive scheme, I’ve got to say our engagement was not only higher, but it was much more meaningful. We promised our students a dog if they reached 50% turnout. Our students loved it. We called it #Dogmocracy. Students we had never engaged with before started posting pictures of their dogs using the elections hashtag. Our results night announcement was standing room only and we found more students voting in each election, rather than logging in to just vote for one position. KeeleSU will certainly be keeping Dogmocracy because it worked for us. Last time I checked, we work in Students’ Unions, many of whom claim ‘fun’ as one of their strategic values. I don’t how or why making SU elections fun should make them less credible.

  3. Great article with some resonating commments “According to conventional wisdom it is far better for a candidate to spend a year building a relationship with the student population, understanding their issues and then making themselves accessible. Yet so many of our unions seem to have opted for the easy way out.” really struck with me. This year I have seen an engagement and comms team work hard to promote the election and increase response alongside some hard capaigning by hopeful candidates. But this flies in the face of the dearth of officer engagement throughout a year in which I witnessed our president claim that they “coudn’t think of anything worse than to have to go and speak to some [visiting] students” just months after pledging absolute commitment to this very action in their manifesto. A lack of incentive to bribe voters may reduce numbers of votes but I think there’s a strong case for arguing it would be beneficial in helping hold Unions and Officers to account and focus more on doing and demonstrating representation of students.

  4. As long as people are out voting, does it really matter? Also, this might be someone’s moment to realise what their SU is doing for them; we might get more engagement because students see that we want them involved and are willing to incentivise that.

    It’s the excitement, enjoyment and celebratory feel around campus that’s what is important during elections and we should do whatever we can to contribute to that feeling.

    Somewhere along the way we need to remember that whilst it’s great to be noble and for our departments to feel socially important, at the end of the day we are here for students – not to feel like our departments are important, or to improve society; those are amazing by products of what we do, but fundamentally we exist to listen to students and try to give them what they want.

    Students perhaps should vote just because it’s the right thing to do, but they don’t. So I am going to keep doing everything I can to make sure that elections and voting is a positive and fun experience for all involved.

    One way we might be irrelevant to them is because we are seen as “fun sponges” that take the fun out of everything and maybe, just maybe, this article is contributing to that notion?

    Elections should be fun. End of.

  5. What a great piece to get us thinking about elections and credibility!

    Our SU realised record turnout this year without any incentives; at the same time we managed to get 12% voting for our constitution, and this follows successive referendums over the past year reaching up to 6,000 members. So perhaps its a bit early to put the ball in the court of incentives.

    Readers should focus on the key question asked here: do incentives harm the SU’s credibility? I was impressed by the incentives I saw at other unions this year; and if the SU is not seen as credible then I can’t see students voting anyway. Yet it’s an important consideration for SU comms that we get the message right, and surely our members will form ideas about the SU based upon what they hear from their SU (or moreso for some, as told by student press!).

    In that sense, gimmicks might help shape the extent to which SU’s are seen to have a sense of humour, or for example, that SU’s can well-balance political character with fund; yet equally incentives or gimmicks might also contribute to the SU being seen as a body a student need only engage with once for a short-lived, consumerist purpose, or for example, being too aligned with commercial interests.

    I’d rationalise that it really depends on the student body and whether these efforts relate to a wider strategy or aim, and obviously, whether its done well!

  6. I was always very sceptical about incentivising voters but we have seen huge success in this. We have seen a steady rise in voter turnout over a number of years with last year’s turnout of 26% with no incentive being our best ever. This year with an incentive we reached a 12.1% rise to 38.1% but this is also with a 20% more candidates. We also saw voters voting for the same number of positions as in previous years suggesting that an incentive brings voters to the ballot station but does not bring down quality of votes.

    15 years of seeing candidates bribe voters with the best cakes, sweets and biscuits have not gone unnoticed. Candidates often spent hours buying or making these rather than talking to the membership – which did not happen this year.

    I would rather see the incentive as a thank you for voting and not a bribe. In terms of being a collective force for students, this helps students and will ensure our members feel we value them.

    I don’t think there has to be a set way of doing anything and this is another example. Find your way of engaging your members and if that”’s different so be it…. We shouldn’t be in the game of shunning or knocking innovation and different ways of engaging. Particularly in these challenging times within SUs and HEIs we need to prove our worth and in impactful and fun ways.

    Do your thing but I wouldn’t be dictating to other Union’s how to engage their audiences…..

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