Voter turnout drops in 2012 UMSU elections

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The posters plastering the University of Manitoba campus proved insufficient to drive up voter turnout in this year’s UMSU elections.

Only 7.3 per cent of eligible students turned up to polls between March 7 and 9. This was more than a five per cent drop from last year’s UMSU elections, when voter turnout sat at 12.5 per cent.

Michael Safiniuk, chief returning officer (CRO) for the 2012 UMSU general elections, said he wasn’t surprised voter turnout in this year’s elections was low.

“I’ve seen stats from prior years where voter turnout was just as low as this year’s,” he commented.

In recent history voter turnout in UMSU elections has hovered at around 10 per cent.

He said he felt that voter turnout levels generally depend on how the candidates run their campaigns and promote themselves throughout the election.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that campaigns weren’t run well, but then again, voter interest is driven by the candidates,” he said.

“We did what we had to do in terms of posting, in making things available, communicating over list serves, holding forums and so on. It’s a combination of all facets.”

He speculated that last year’s higher voter turnout may have been due to more competition amongst the slates in the running for the executive positions. In 2011, there were three slates running for executive positions. This year there were two slates and one independent candidate, Aaron Griffiths, who was disqualified on the last day of voting.

“The more candidates that you have running for a particular position, the more slates that you have running . . . and more campaigning by more people, will drive up voter interest,” Safiniuk argued.

The highest voter turnout in recent history was in 1999, when 23 per cent of U of M students turned up at the polls. That year students voted to elect now MP Stephen Fletcher in an election that saw six slates running.

The lowest voter turnout came in 2002, where just 4.6 per cent of students voted in the UMSU elections. That year also saw six slates of students run for office.

Bilan Arte, UMSU president elect, said she had predicted that voter turnout in this year’s election might be low considering that candidates experienced delays in distributing campaign materials — printers at the UMSU Digital Copy Centre were down for almost a day at the beginning of the campaign period.

“But I know that we did put a lot of work into pulling the amount of votes that we did, and I know that we did really try to get those voters out there,” she said.

“We did legitimately spend 12 hours a day campaigning, so every single one of the 1,200 votes that I got . . . nobody handed them to us, it was our sweat and tears. I kind of look at it as ‘wow, that’s still seven per cent that we managed to talk to and then take to the polls.’”

She said she thought that the low turnout may also have been due to a lack of awareness amongst students about what UMSU does and why there was an election happening.

“Often we had to explain what UMSU is, explain there’s an election going on, and explain that people need to go vote for us, so it was kind of doing three different jobs at the same time,” Arte explained.

“We need to obviously work to ensure that students know what the student union does and that they all pay membership fees.”

In recent years, UMSU council has discussed various ideas for how to encourage higher voter turnout.

The possibility of online voting in UMSU elections has been raised, but not seriously explored, explained current UMSU president Camilla Tapp.

“There have been some cases across the country of hacking of online voter systems, and we are unwilling to explore any option that may jeopardize the integrity of the election,” she said.

Increasing the number of polling stations on campus during the election has also been suggested.

However, it is difficult to determine the value that additional polling stations would have, Tapp explained, considering the extra costs associated with adding locations on campus.

“The campaign expense and advisory committee sets the number and locations of the polling stations, and the opinions and decisions of the committee have varied over the years,” she said.

“The CRO has a tight budget that must be balanced between promotions, poll clerks, campaign budgets, and it is a hard decision of which would be best spent to maximize voter turnout.”

Dan Nenadov, UMSU representative for the University of Manitoba Engineering Society, said that he felt more polling stations would be preferable, “especially with such a weak voter turnout; something needs to be looked into.”

Nenadov requested that a polling station be added to the Engineering Building in order to improve access for students in the faculty of engineering, a request that was denied by the office of the CRO. There has not been a polling station in the building since 2007, when the amount of locations on campus was dramatically reduced.

“There are a lot of engineering students that don’t spend a lot of time outside our building and we are so busy that voting often slips our minds. By having a polling station right in our building students would be easily able to recognize that there is an election going on and would be more inclined to vote,” Nenadov explained.

Close to 36 per cent of engineering students voted in last year’s UMES elections, Nenadov pointed out, a good indication that students in the faculty are interested in student politics.

There were eight polling station locations in this year’s UMSU elections, plus one advanced polling station on March 2.

University Centre brought out the most students to its polling station, followed by Fletcher Argue. The polling station in the Agriculture Building received the lowest amount of students, with just 29 casting their ballots.

Laird Lampertz, UMSU representative for the Faculty of Agriculture Students Organization (FASO), speculated that the low turnout at his faculty’s polling station was likely due to a lack of awareness amongst agriculture students.

“Many students rarely leave the Agriculture Building, and there was little campaigning or promotion of the elections in the faculty,” he said.