The student elections are fast approaching, and with them will come the usual tell-tale signs of a college election: candidates conducting meet-and-greets outside lectures, canvassers with Disney smiles and a prize goat for every vote (this is how I imagine the Healy-Rae’s sustain their continued success). It’s that middle occurrence that may concern most people as they manage their business. Essentially a chugger (you know, those yellow-jacked Concern people on Paul Street) without the moral high ground, canvassers must still gain the attention of potential voters. Unfortunately, this being a student election, they need to attract that most apathetic voter: the student.
However, they have ways to make you vote, these pesky canvassers. Well, they kind of do. David McCarthy is a veteran of two successful campaigns for Eoghan Healy, the former Communications and Commercial Officer and current Students’ Union President. He explained how there was little to no brash canvassing: ‘We’d make it our business not to piss people off. Rather we’d just try and make people aware of Eoghan Healy, and a small few would come over and ask us about his policies. Any people we talked to were given stickers with Eoghan’s name on it, which helped to promote him and also made sure we wouldn’t bother that person again since we could see the sticker’.
A simple enough task then, although I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the process. Surely there are more methods to acquire the students’ attention? ‘Videos are made, which show people saying who they’ll vote for, and some humour is usually included to make it a better watch. Profile photos on Facebook are changed to the campaign poster – it was all part of raising awareness of Eoghan and his campaign’, David continues, ‘We always tried to use houses that are geographically important, like the ones by Daybreak (on College Road). We’d hang banners outside those houses and we’d have reps posted outside Brookfield, the college gates and outside the library on the main campus.’
Besides providing students with an idea of what routes to avoid during election season, I wondered that surely there must be more that can be done to draw in voters. This is where David revealed his hidden talent as a human megaphone: ‘I used to drive up along College Road in the daytime, shouting out Eoghan’s name. I’d try to include slogans and hopefully witty quotes too; it was a bit of fun and again helped to keep Eoghan’s name in peoples’ minds.’
So far it all seems restrained, with little extravagance. I recall hearing about a wealthy Welfare candidate holding an expensive bash to garner votes from a few years ago, and how this turns out to be false. As another former canvasser (who preferred to remain anonymous) disclosed, there is a limit on how much can be spent on a campaign. ’There’s a maximum budget of five hundred Euro, so it’s really a volunteer thing. Anyone who signs up to help out has to devote a lot of their time to campaigning. Like, some people have to start at seven or eight in the morning, and it can get very boring very quickly unless you try to keep yourself active while representing the campaign. A good few of us used to do cart wheels, and even just knocked a football around; it helped keep us going and drew in attention, so it killed two birds that way’.
Much of the campaigning appears to focus on gaining the eye of students and getting the candidate’s name to stick in their mind. When it comes to the actual policies being publicised, this was generally left to the candidates themselves to promote. As another anonymous canvasser explains, while the campaign reps do answer voters’ questions, ‘the candidate running generally goes to the busiest lectures and talks to the people attending them. I ran on Eoghan Healy’s (campaign) last year and he tended to try and get in one-on-ones with inquisitive students.’ Was this the most important thing in Healy’s victory? ‘Well, it’s hard to say. To be honest, only a small fraction of the students vote. So, really, I think it’s the person with the biggest campaign who is going to win, and last year that was the case. Eoghan is a very popular guy so he was able to count on a lot of help from his friends, which worked out’. This comes through when David confirms that his main reason for canvassing was to ‘help out a friend, as well as for the life experience involved’.
This of course sounds similar to a popularity contest, which my interviewee was quick to correct; ‘In fairness to Eoghan, he was always very serious about the job and that came through whenever he spoke about it to voters and to us helping him. He wasn’t there for a session, if you know what I mean.’
Despite it being an election, there is little of the mudslinging we see from the elders in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. In fact, it seems almost respectable. Guess we’ll just have to wait for the students to mature.