Quick. Name the three slates running in the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) election this year.
Now try naming someone from each slate. Bonus points for naming a student running independently.
Trick question—there aren’t any candidates running independently.
Aside from current vice-president equity Maya McDonald, independent candidates tend not to do very well in SFUO elections. It’s not enough for those students to have better ideas than their individual opponents; they also need better marketing than an entire team. Voters may not even remember which slate members are running for each position, so an independent candidate is running against the powerful forces of the whole slate’s marketing initiative.
With poster season upon us, if you’ve been on campus, you’ve seen the efforts of the three slates: ABC, Here for Us, and Impact. If you’ve been paying careful attention, you may have even looked into what some of the candidates are promising to do with your student fees next year.
The power of repetition in advertising is well-documented. It’s part of the reason you keep getting commercials in your head, and the force behind ad nostalgia binges on YouTube. Small-budget ads that only run a couple of times don’t do as well as the sheer quantity of ads put out by large corporations.
In this way, slates function as the General Electrics and Wal-Marts of the world. Much like the small number of independent retailers in our current marketplace, this year’s SFUO election has shown that no one was willing to run as an independent. It’s hard to compete with a monopoly.
At their best, slates allow students to pool resources to reach as many potential voters as possible. Through colour-coded branding, slogans, and teams of supporters, campaigning together can help reach more people on campus. With low voter turnout since the abandonment of Internet voting, this seems like a good thing.
The drawback is that while students may become familiar with a particular slate, this style of campaigning makes it more difficult to remember we’re voting for individuals. More importantly we’re voting for each of them to do a particular job. Each slate member’s individual goals are lost amid branded posters and Facebook posts.
Slates also play into voter apathy. The posters and social media posts put so much focus on simplistic slogans and bright colours that it seems like a vote for a slate is a vote for a cool-looking group of Photoshopped students. In short, a popularity contest.
It may be advantageous as a winning strategy to distract from the platforms created by each candidate, but ultimately it does them a disservice. Each person running for a position has put time and thought into what they will do should they win. Some people have better ideas than others, and the only way to know is to pay attention to what individuals are saying. The slates distract voters from the ideas presented by their members. You’ll remember the colours are purple, purple and blue, or black and gold before you remember how they intend to work with the administration next year.
Slates also encourage limited debate. While a lot can be accomplished by a group of people who have already stated they want to work together, if the entire slate wins, there doesn’t seem to be any system of check and balances. The Board of Administration has some power, but they too are often affiliated with the SFUO slates. Who will ensure that the diverse range of campus needs are represented if everyone on the executive thinks there’s only one right way to do things?
The slates encourage and uphold an echo chamber of ideas that only represent a small faction of the student body. If you’re wondering how small, consider that voter turnout last year was 11 per cent.
There are a lot of things to pick at when it comes to student elections and the University of Ottawa. We could be focusing on the poor communication on campus or the refusal to consider a return to online voting even though voter turnout with online voting was at 30 per cent in 2009.
Instead we’re looking at slates because even with increased awareness of the election or easier access to voting, this near-requirement for winning is flawed. It’s a system set up to distract us from anything real. This is why we’ve chosen not to include slate designations in our election coverage this year.
The student body can’t be expected to engage with candidates and their plans while we’re being sold on a well-edited marketing campaign in place of substance. It hurts voters and it hurts the candidates who are trying to bring real and positive change to our campus.
As you read the platforms and listen to the debates–and as a student paying fees that fund their positions and programs, you really should–try not to get distracted by what looks nice on paper. Remember that each of these candidates has a plan for the coming year and take the time to decide if it’s what you want at this school.