This year’s elections differed significantly from last year’s in one major way: the number of students on campus. Last year’s strikes turned university grounds into a ghost town, meaning that candidates focused much more heavily on campaigning online. However, this year’s elections saw a flood of flyers on campus, and while this has arguably contributed to the huge increase in voter turnout, some students are questioning whether a shift to paperless campaigning next year might be a greener way forward.
With this year’s elections had=ving nearly double the number of candidates as last year, and with the union allowing each candidate to print up to one thousand flyers, it’s no surprise that some students are concerned about the amount of paper that was used. Since the results were announced last Friday, several students have taken to Newfess, an anonymous Facebook confession page for Newcastle students, to complain that the use of posters was “wasteful” and left campus looking “messy”. Some students even went as far to say that they would refuse to vote for candidates who “pestered” them or wasted paper.
Although the use of paper upset some students, many of this year’s candidates have expressed how giving out flyers allowed them to connect with potential voters. Grace Dean, the successful candidate for the role of the Editor of the Courier, attributes her success to the time she spent campaigning face-to-face.
"From my personal experience I found digital campaigning to be of little effect. What really helped me to win these elections was speaking to people in person, and I gave most of these people an A6 flyer featuring my name, my manifesto and the voting website. Had I not given these flyers to people, I believe that way fewer people would have remembered my name and remembered the website to vote on."
This perspective suggests that although a social media campaign would undoubtably be better for the environment, candidates who choose this method could be at a disadvantage. Despite this concern, one of this year’s seven presidential candidates, John Dilworth, decided to run his campaign completely paper-free.
“I think there are a number of drawbacks to paper campaigns, the most obvious being the waste they create.” He told the Courier. “Dozens of candidates had hundreds of flyers made, and for what? Four day of use before they have to be removed? It doesn't seem worth it... I think it's a pretty antiquated campaigning method that isn't necessary in 2019 given all of the options available for spreading messages on social media.”
Dilworth’s ended up losing the presidential election to Katie Smyth, however, he doesn’t believe that his paperless campaign was the reason for his loss.
“Obviously I lost the election by hundreds of votes, but my social media advertisement was rejected by Facebook because at one point the words “DIL DO” appeared on the screen in big letters, so I don't think that's a fair case for digital ads being less effective. Other candidates who paid attention to the guidelines used Facebook ads successfully... I spent no money on paper materials or digital ads and my vote total wasn't much different to [some of the] candidates who used a lot of paper, so what's even the point?”
Steven Ross, a third-year history student, echoed this sentiment using Dilworth’s campaign as an example of how the elections could improve.
“It's ironic that the only candidate to take the issue of paper campaign waste was the 'joke' candidate John Dilworth.” Ross observed. “If all candidates were advised not to use paper distribution or at least vastly limited to say 100 sheets instead of 1000, then everyone would be on the same footing, but the campus would be a lot cleaner and there would be far less paper waste.”
The view that paper use should be restricted rather than banned outright was echoed by many. Many people who are involved in the union are aware of how challenging it is to get people involved in student politics, and there is a concern that confining campaigns to social media will make the process democratic. Scarlett Rowland, one of the candidates for Editor of the Courier, argued that many students are unaware of the fact that elections are happening until they see the posters, and that in order to go paperless, NUSU would have to find other ways of increasing engagement. Third-year English Literature student Carys Rose Thomas suggested that investing in larger posters would be less irritating for students who are bothered by the litter.
While NUSU Presdient Raff Marioni acknowledges the advantages of posters in increasing visibility, he states that students are right to question how eco-friendly this method is and agrees that it is time for a change.
“Ultimately, as a Students’ Union we may have to look into how we can advise candidates to be more eco-friendly with their budget and potentially set a numerical limit on how many paper items they purchase, and future candidates may want to continue the move towards a greater focus on social media promotion and outreach. Striking the balance is important, and I think it’s a target that NUSU and candidates should set themselves in the lead up to next year.”
With all these ideas in mind, it will be interesting to see how NUSU responds to these criticisms during next year’s elections.