Two-week campaigns produce shallow elections

by John Anderson

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The media maelstrom that passed through the U.S. during the last presidential election saturated daily life with material about Decision 2008. Candidates campaigned for well more than a year, roughly a quarter of the time they would serve in office.

The San Diego State’s Associated Students’ annual elections look like a fleeting breeze in comparison. Measuring student government elections to the presidential election may seem absurd, but in terms of direct daily influence, A.S. management has more impact on your daily routine than President Barack Obama. A.S.’ significant role in student life makes the absence of hype and information troubling. The A.S. electoral system is flawed to the detriment of both the candidates and the general student population, but there are some easy fixes with the capacity to greatly improve the process.

Students don’t have national party conventions to decide who will run for office, and the application process remains shrouded in mystery to those not actively searching for deadlines and requirements. A.S. releases applications for upper management positions at the end of January. Students should have received an e-mail notifying them of the day the office opened its doors to prospective candidates, but other than that, I have trouble recalling any advertisement soliciting applications. Once the campaign actually begins, between the signs and general flurry of candidates scrambling to articulate their platforms, election day is hard to miss. Not that we pay much attention; voter turnout is comically low considering we don’t even have to get off the couch to cast a vote. The voter apathy rampant on campus reflects flaws in the system more than laziness from the students.

A.S. electoral bylaws limit campaigning to 14 consecutive days, meaning candidates have only two weeks to imprint their names into voters’ minds and inspire them enough to vote. This ridiculously short period is expected to suffice for candidates to get their message out and establish a rapport with the student body beyond cookie-cutter, cereal-box slogans such as “Integrity, Vision, Will.” Seriously, this reminds me of fourth grade when slogans more likely read “skate park, soda fountains, longer recess.” Simple word association is tragically inadequate information to decide on an elected representative.

Executive candidates are offered two endorsed venues to get their messages out. They may first submit a written statement to introduce themselves to the student body. This statement is limited to 125 words – slightly longer than several Twitter posts. They are then given the chance to participate in a single, one-hour debate, split between all executive candidates — the only A.S.-sponsored public venue where candidates have a chance to directly address their constituents. This year, the moderator had time to ask a whopping three or four questions. Despite the moderator’s desire to open the forum to questions from the public, there simply wasn’t enough time. For what it’s worth, the debate gives executives twice as many opportunities to reach the student body as are available to A.S. Council representative contenders. College reps must rely on clever signage and miraculously convincing statements to garner votes.

In addition to limiting candidates’ ability to establish any sort of ethos with the community, the time crunch forces A.S. hopefuls to make hard choices about academics. Between meeting with student organizations to solicit endorsements, camping out to set up signs and directing their campaigns, candidates — who are students — often are forced to choose between classes and votes.

The lack of opportunity and time to reach constituents gives serious advantage to candidates already tied to large, established social organizations. This built-in support base creates a de facto revolving door for incumbents. The lack of a forum for other students to drum up support leaves them on the outside in the cold looking in at what boils down to be a popularity contest.

There is an easy fix to all of this: Give the candidates more time. Another week or two for campaigning and at least one more debate would takes pressure off both candidates and students struggling to force election events into already hectic schedules. We really want to get to know the people who will be spending our $23 million budget. A longer, more in-depth and better publicized debate is vital. Pitting candidates against each other and holding them accountable for their claims would go a long way in informing the greater student population. Who knows, it might even improve our pitiful voter turnout.

Ultimately, if we are going to consider A.S. a legitimate governing body, we need an election process with real content. Instead of the drivel devoid of any real substance we have now, A.S. needs to develop a system that actively involves students and generates some real interest in campus life. After all, it wouldn’t be so horrible to have symbols of democracy and student leadership litter our campus for a few more weeks.

— John Anderson is an ISCOR junior.

— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.

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