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:
- Turnout is a way judge the success of year round engagement rather than of the elections themselves.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.