Voter turnout for this year’s McMaster Students Union sat at 28 per cent, reflecting the first time in five years that less than 40 per cent of the undergraduate student population voted in an MSU presidential election.
While this year’s low voter turnout rate is a problem, it is unclear why this problem emerged in the first place.
As highlighted in a news article from the Silhouette’s Feb. 1 issue, the last time the MSU saw a similar voter turnout was in 2013, when 29.3 per cent of the MSU voted for former presidential candidate David Campbell.
This year’s low voter turnout rate is a problem as it weakens the MSU democracy and makes MSU policy less reflective of McMaster students’ voices. The MSU needs to do more to find out why this is the case.
While it would be easy to cite student apathy as the main factor, doing so would only be speculating as it would be impossible to prove that after five years of persistently high MSU presidential voter turnout rates, an arbitrary increase in the amount of apathy was the driving force behind this year’s drop in the number of votes. It also seems implausible.
According to a Maclean’s article from 2012, in 2009, the last year that the MSU presidential election was conducted via paper ballots as opposed to online voting, voter turnout sat at 13 percent. In the years following the transition from in-person to online voting, however, the turnout rate improved significantly.
This year’s low voter turnout rate is a problem as it weakens the MSU democracy and makes MSU policy less reflective of McMaster students’ voices.
After the McMaster Students Union made the transition to online voting, which enabled students to vote through their laptops, iPads or smartphones for the first time, turnout increased 22 per cent the following year, 24 per cent the next year, and 33 per cent the year after.
Other Canadian universities also witnessed this trend. For instance, the University of Windsor Students Alliance saw a 42 per cent voter turnout increase after it made the transition to online voting.
In addition, when they switched to online voting, Wilfrid Laurier University, Queen’s University, the University of Western Ontario, Simon Fraser University, Brock University and the University of Manitoba saw their respective turnout rates spike.
While the cause of these increases is elusive, the strong correlation suggests that the switch to online voting, which improved the convenience and accessibility of voting for students, significantly contributed to the increase in turnout rate.
To identify the most plausible explanation for this year’s low voter turnout, it is essential that we first look at concrete policy changes that have also been implemented at other universities.
If a major policy change, such as the switch from in-person to online voting, did not occur this year, we should examine McMaster-specific policy changes and other actions that have been taken.
For instance, in 2011, Queen’s University started to embrace “Do It Yourself” videos, which sparked renewed conversation about the election and likely contributed to the increase in voter turnout.
According to an article in the Varsity, at the University of Toronto, voter turnout rates typically increase when the presidential candidates invest more effort into campaigning and engaging students outside of the student union.
Rather than invoke voter apathy and claim that the only remedy is social change, we need to do more to understand what factors may have contributed to the turnout for this year’s election to make sure that it does not happen again.
Not to blame the candidates and say that the problem is not student apathy, but considering the trend at the University of Toronto, we should be asking ourselves: Did the candidates campaign in ways that they traditionally have not? Did they campaign at as many classes as they did last year? Did they all promote the debates? Did they show up at the debates? How did their debate performances compare those of the candidates from previous years?
Students may be apathetic and disengaged from the MSU, but we need to do more than complain about it.
By understanding how policy changes contribute to voter turnout, we can reverse those policies or prescribe new ones. It is only after we gain a more nuanced understanding of the problem that we can remedy it.