By Nicholas O’Hara
If you haven’t attended a fiercely contested student society AGM you could be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t anything particularly strategic about them. After all, in theory members simply signal their preferences for certain people for particular positions, and the magic of majority rule voting ensures a fair outcome. However, whenever their are multiple people directly competing for the same position strategic decision making will inevitably be present, and whether or not everyone realises it, everyone is pursing a strategy of some kind. So lets consider some of the different motivations and tactics that drive individual decision-making in this brutal zero-sum game.
Individual Risk Preferences
At the heart of an individual’s decision-making is the choice of which position in the society they wish to run for. This decision is directly affected by the person’s risk preference – or their individual tolerance towards risk and uncertainty. A risk loving person may run for higher-up positions even though they acknowledge that it may be unlikely that they will win, whilst the more risk averse are likely to stick to the positions they feel they are sure to win. This choice is ultimately subjective, but it does help explain some of the specific tactics that people may employ.
Risk averse members are more likely to purse a strategy involving hedging and run for a number of different positions in order to minimise the risk of missing out on a position altogether. In this case hedging acts like an insurance policy, in that the person is protecting themselves from the adverse outcome of missing out on their preferred position by having other back-up options. However, there are potential disadvantages in hedging too much, in that running for too many positions may be perceived as lacking a genuine interest in any of them, and could reduce the chance of winning their preferred position.
The First Mover Advantage
People may attempt to declare their intention to run for a position as soon as possible in order try and gain a First Mover Advantage. In this context, a First Mover Advantage could give a person an edge over their prospective competitors in that they can gain more attention from the society and can explain their ideas for the position before others have even decided to run. In its extreme case, this increased attention may even dissuade others from trying to run as they perceive it as being too difficult to make up the lost ground.
Perhaps the most controversial element of an AGM, or any other majority rules voting situation, is the prospect of vote trading. In the case of Student Society Elections this would involve a mutual agreement between people running for different positions to vote for each other. This is particularly influential in small-scale AGM’s where there are relatively few members voting, and vote trading can have a very significant impact on the outcome of an election. However, despite any negative preconceptions of vote trading as simply manipulating the outcome of an elections, it is important to point out that it can actually lead to a more efficient result than would otherwise have occurred. For example, under a normal voting system an individual has no way of indicating the ‘intensity’ of their preference for a certain candidate. Whether a person only slightly prefers one candidate to another, or whether they strongly believe that only one person is capable of doing the job well, they still only have one vote. Vote trading allows a person to indicate how strongly they feel about an individual candidate. They can trade their vote with another member of the society, and in doing so gain an additional vote on this position at the expense of a vote for a position they are less invested in. Unfortunately, vote trading can also lead to inefficient outcomes in which a few people have excessive influence, but hey, it’s pretty hard to stop it happening.
Hopefully these ideas shed light on some of the individual motivations of people during AGM’s. Ultimately student society elections, just like any other situation in which one person’s gain is another’s loss, are always going to involve strategic decision-making. But at the end of the day all of these strategies assume some highly rational society members making some very thoughtful voting decisions, but if there’s one thing that Economics has shown us, it’s that this is often not the case.