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Student elections voting based on personalities

Knowledge of candidates plays little role

Chances are, even after election day, students won’t really know who they elected to be the next student body president.

It won’t be because the votes won’t be counted correctly or because the name won’t be announced, but because the nature of the election process does not always present great insight into the type of leader the candidate will be, students and voting experts said.

If national research on voting is any indicator, only a small number of students will base their vote on issues outlined in platforms. Most will fill out a ballot based on their perceptions of candidate personalities and likability, said psychology professor Melanie Green.

Similar to politicians in national elections, student body president candidates face difficulties conveying their true personality to students, and are subject to the whims of fickle voters and word-of-mouth opinions that shape public perception, she said.

As a result, most voters tend to cast their votes on the limited portrait created by signs, personal connections and word-of-mouth characterizations.

“There are not a whole lot of issues that play into this, and in an election without issues, students tend to rely on easily accessible information they don’t have to research,” said political science graduate student Patrick Miller, who studies voting.

“So things like the sex or race of the candidate will probably matter. How they perceive personalities relates to how they use these kinds of easily accessible cues about the candidates.”

Sophomore Todd Lewis, like many others, said the personal connection he feels with a candidate is the primary factor in how he will cast his vote.

“I only vote for a candidate if I know them personally, because a written platform is not enough to sway my vote. I go by who I know,” he said.

So for the candidates, telling voters like Lewis who they are is one of the biggest challenges they face.

“It’s a difficult thing for candidates, whether you’re running for president of the United States or student body president of UNC, to get your real personality out there,” Miller said.

This relative information vacuum places greater importance on public forums and personal conversations, which let voters form their own impressions of the candidates, rather than relying on other people’s characterizations.

Green said she suspects students vote based on sometimes shallow perceptions of the candidates.

“The personal qualities of the people really play a pretty big role, — if they’re outgoing or if they make a good impression,” she said.

“But you could argue that this is important to their role as student body president, and that it’s not necessarily a bad way to vote.”

Thomas Edwards, last year’s runner-up, said he believes the number of students who read platforms is quite small, despite his hopes otherwise.

“As a candidate, you obviously want people to look at you as the potential next SBP, and the job you would do and how you would carry yourself and the level of dedication you would have,” he said.

“But the majority don’t vote based off the platform, but rather the externalities of the campaign.”

Edwards said he thinks people make split-second decisions in characterizing the candidates.

“You have campaign signs representing you, and you have two-sentence quotes in the paper getting your personality across, and it’s hard for people to get a sense of who you really are in those information outlets you have.”

 

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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