the sad little idea that nobody liked…

… until now? During the last debates, Jeremy McElroy, the interpreter for Kommander Keg, came out of character for a moment and talked about student apathy. He also suggested some disincentive program to get people to vote.

A while back, early in my term as chair of Code and Policies, I circulated a document that detailed an idea that everybody hated. This idea was for an Engagement Levy, which basically would take the form of a fee that everyone paid, and would get back if they voted.

The remainder of the money would, instead of being directed into general revenue of the AMS, would instead fund projects designed to increase engagment. Some amount of the money would be used to fund the VFM prize pool every year.

People could opt out of the fee like any other, or by voting, which will cause them to get a credit on their account.

You can read a little more about the idea here, in a brief that was presented to Code and Policies. What do people think of this idea? Completely inviable, or just an assault on democracy? (I consider both of these things selling points.)


15 Responses to “the sad little idea that nobody liked…”

  1. January 24, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    This is tangential to your post but thanks for including the UBC Spectator in your blogroll. 🙂 Keep up the great reporting!

  2. January 24, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    We’ve talked about this idea briefly once and I must say that I think it could work. There are, of course, a number of risks, but I wonder if anything like this has been implemented anywhere else. Does anyone know?

  3. 3 radicalbeer
    January 25, 2009 at 12:04 am

    Well, Australia has something similar. Also, Ecuador has a mandatory voting law. I don’t have any student union examples off hand. Also, full disclosure from the RBT Editorial Board: Naylor loves this idea. Alex hates it.

  4. January 25, 2009 at 12:32 am

    What is Alex’s argument against it?

  5. 5 radicalbeer
    January 25, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Ignoring philosophical views about what is ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’, I feel the proposal doesn’t fix any problems, it just hides them.

    People don’t vote because they don’t see value in voting (provided they are aware they can vote). To increase turnout, the AMS should strive to increase the perceived value, instead of providing sticks to those who don’t vote. The issue at hand is not to increase turnout, but is to instead increase value.

    Too often we assume we’re doing things right, and it’s the others who are simply calculating value wrong. This is a pretty destructive way of thinking about the situation, if you ask me.

    – Ed 2.

  6. 6 radicalbeer
    January 25, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Which is to say that Alex sees ‘turnout’ and ‘value’ as separate and distinct things. I particularly like the philosophical problems argument, as Alex has used a rhetorical trick that implies that there is a obvious argument for democracy that is implicit within low voter turnouts. This is not the case.

    Campaigns today are not democratic, but rather a test of organizational competence. Campaigns today are about pulling largely inert and unengaged voting blocks to the polls. Parties campaign in different areas and demographics because they need to pull those people out to the polls, while actively working to suppress turnout amongst other people. Whatever that is, its not democracy.

    Alex’s argument’s key failing is that it assumes that democracy is about choice. It’s not; it’s about power – look right there in the name: “demos” – the people, and “kratos” – rule. Democracy is not about ensuring that everybody is happy, its about making sure that power stays in the hands of the right people (the people) rather than into semi-autocratic rulers of political parties (as is the case in many Westminster systems) or a small elite circle (the AMS). With the right voting system (ie. first past the post fails), we can gather a representative view of our constituents and their issues.

    To see voting as a right allows for the slow death of the system. Voting is not for the individual – it is an obligation to the group. It is a civic duty. Besides, it would still be acceptable for people to have a “Screw you all, just give me my money.” space on the ballot, in case they missed their other opportunity to opt out, helping to remove the ‘rhino-vote’ and ‘donkey-vote’ problems.

    Further to this, I don’t really see how implementing a completely voluntary and opt-outable fee could really be described as undemocratic. Since people are not required to pay, and are likewise still not required to vote, we are just gently encouraging them to do so. Turnout in and of itself enriches the value of the AMS.


  7. January 25, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    The fee is incentive to do something. I’d honestly put it at $10 (at least). Make opting out possible only AFTER the election. That is, if after the election, you want to hunt down your $10, you can. Having it BEFORE seems redundant.

    Basically, this would serve to make voting the easiest way of getting your money back.
    And yes, having an “abstain” choice on the ballot, or some other clear and easy way to spoil it should also exist.

    That might work.

    But really, I don’t see a need. The turnout is low because people don’t care. What’s wrong with not caring? As long as the AMS works competently to provide the services that a majority of students can get behind, its doing ok. Its like being a shareholder in a corporation. You CAN go and vote, but most don’t because they trust the ones that do to accurately, on average, represent them as their interests are, for the most part, the same. There’s a lot of qualifying statements in there, but meh.

    Lastly, there is no AMS elite. An elite suggest that there is somehow some way to exclude individuals from joining that elite. There isn’t. Its a perfectly (upward?) mobile system where anyone can join the AMS and have quite a bit of sway, regardless of friendships or the like.

    Just look at me 🙂 Exactly how many elections did I win to get fairly involved with the AMS? None. I just made myself a presence, voiced my opinion, and worked what angles I could to get to where I thought I’d contribute the most. Anyone else can do exactly the same thing.

  8. January 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    @Naylor: I’m not sure if I agree with your analysis of democracy, but the fee doesn’t seem to be a problem for precisely the reason you pointed out – it’s voluntary and opt-outable.

    @Alex: The AMS should strive to increase the perceived value of voting, yes. How can that be done? Well one way is to have the AMS just do more things that students care about. Matt’s proposal offers two additional strategies to increase the perceived value of voting. First, the money that is collected from those who do not vote and do not opt-out of the fee will be used to communicate to students through VFM, advertising, etc. which will increase the perception that voting in the AMS elections is important. Second, I posit that while some may be motivated initially to vote because of the financial incentive, for many of those people the money will act as a hook and they will been drawn into the election and choose to educate themselves before they vote.

    There are underlying problems that this proposal does not address. It will likely not have much of an effect on those students who don’t vote in the AMS elections because they believe the AMS is dumb, irrelevant, etc. But it will potentially reach those students who didn’t vote, but would have voted if they would have known about the election. I don’t see any reason why this proposal is inconsistent with other strategies of increasing the value of voting.

  9. 9 radicalbeer
    January 25, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    @Blake: There’s another way of doing that that does not being with the premise of ‘voting in AMS elections is a good thing, and the populace is wrong for not thinking so’. That’s making sure students know where the AMS is, know what the AMS does and making sure the AMS is doing what people see as valuable. No one votes in our executive elections, but we see spikes of turnout on U-Pass elections. Value.

    Turnout also serves as one of the only metrics the AMS has of “how is our engagement”. If we inflate the number, we lose the drive to do better.

    @Naylor: You assume power in the hands of the people is an intrinsic good. If the people do not want that power (exemplified by not showing up), why should they be given it?

    Unrelated, I would love to see a study of how effective opt-outs are. For example: How many students are paying the Health and Dental fee, even though they’re covered by their parents and didn’t know they could opt-out?

  10. January 25, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    How about when I vote I get a cookie and a pint of beer?

  11. 11 radicalbeer
    January 26, 2009 at 12:27 am

    @Alex – I think power should be in the hands of the people because there is no other good alternative. I mean, Plato had some ideas fer-sher, but the Republic would screw us all. Tyrants, tramps and thieves are what dominate politics. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

    @Furry – Fine, but that would cost less than $5. I’d give you a roll in the hay as well, but at my current going rate, that still wouldn’t make up the Engagement Levy.

  12. 13 wbrucek
    January 29, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I think the idea definitely has merit – But it should be be made very easy to abstain from voting once you’re on the SSC and still get your money back (So you don’t get lots of random votes).

    In democracy generally campaigns seem to focus largely on GOTV efforts rather than on convincing voters you’re best!

    What about implementing something like this idea at the Municipal level (where higher voter turnout could really pay dividends in terms of bus service, rental prices, etc.)?

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