Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Candidate Time Drain Problem

In UBC’s January 2007 student elections, many candidates complained that the voter-funded media contestants took too much of their time. The lists of written questions that most media sent them overlapped each other heavily. Those asking for in-person interviews added a further time burden. Some media seemed not to have read the candidates’ published platforms. With thirteen entrants trying to prove themselves worthy of voter funding, this diverted electoral candidates’ time away from other campaigning. Reducing direct contact with voters may have contributed to the low voter turnout. The media did not seem to deliver many votes in return for all the time cost. Does VFM help or harm the democratic decision process? Does it make running for electoral office more difficult?

The VFM Committee Report raised this issue on page 6. AMS Council discussed it when the report was presented at their March 28 meeting; minutes should soon be available here.

Some have argued that allocating time for campaigning both to media and directly to voters is part of being a candidate. Nonetheless, I think this problem is worth some attention. VFM should make it more inviting for well qualified candidates to run for office. Public-interest media can make elections less about postering one’s name all over campus, and more about qualifications and issues. There must be more time-efficient ways to achieve that.

We can expect some components of this problem to work themselves out naturally through time, even without specific countermeasures. VFM is a brand new mechanism, and all participants (candidates, media, voters, administrators) are moving rapidly up a learning curve. (Well, most voters are moving slowly, but still upward.) Voters will learn about the new media, increasing their impact. Electoral candidates will learn how to better allocate their time. Media will learn how to create more public benefit, and using less candidate time is a public benefit.

Launching the next VFM contest in September will spread media attention across five months, covering AMS Council policies in the fall, rather than just concentrating on a three-week election frenzy in January. That raises the possibility of excess demands on councillors’ time, but the distribution of effort through the semester will be more in line with voters’ information needs.

The AMS should take another look at how best to sequence the various possible stages of electoral campaigning – announcing candidacy, responding to media, active campaigning etc. One goal has always been to make campaigning effective without excessive time commitments, but VFM offers new ways to do that. For example, the VFM Committee Report recommended: “Allow candidates to declare their intent to run in mid-November, initiate non-public campaign period until the beginning of formal campaigning” (page 15).

Clearly the media can coordinate better to reduce duplication of their questions to candidates. But election administrators should beware the temptation to step in and impose a solution. Freedom of the press is a key political principle; government control of the media is to be avoided. Remember that VFM is intended not just for student elections, but more importantly as a model for reforming our national political systems.

Voluntary adherence to a consensus on best-practice media principles may be enough. For example, media contestants could create a question pool for each electoral candidate, with a few core questions plus one contributed by each contestant. The candidate can answer just the one list, and all media can use the answers.

Media should monitor each other’s behaviour in serving the public interest, and reflect those assessments in their media voting recommendations. They can thus encourage each other to use candidates’ time efficiently by:
- preparing for interviews;
- not asking questions that already have answers published;
- posting the full interview recording and transcript on the web;
- allowing any copying and re-use of their material as long as it’s credited.

This approach to sharing information is referred to as “Open Access” on page 14 of the VFM Committee Report. See www.creativecommons.org for info on the global Open Access movement. VFM can be seen as a mechanism for funding a creative commons.

UBC election administrators should consult with the media to decide what mix of coordination mechanisms (rules, consensus principles etc.) would work best. AMS Council and its next VFM Committee should also keep in mind the likely impacts on candidates’ time when they discuss next year’s contest design, including total award pool, number of awards, and entry fee or other entry hurdle.