Believe it or not, but voting in the ASSU elections this year actually matters, much more so than in previous years. As in American politics, some elections are “status quo” elections–representing continuation of the current order–and some are “change” elections–a chance for a dramatic shift away from the way things have been done. This year is very much about “change.” For the first time in years, there is a complete, new generation of candidates and the possibility of real, systematic reform.
All the candidates running are passionate and competent individuals who will serve the student body well. There are, however, some important characteristics that distinguish among the large number of candidates running. (Disclaimer: I have been advising a number of Senate candidates).
First, evaluate the quality of their platforms. Senate candidates–and I was certainly guilty of this as well–have a tendency to publicize broad objectives like “enhancing student engagement,” “strengthening diversity,” “improving accountability” and “promoting free speech.” Platitudes are nice, but meaningless without specific implementation strategies. The best-prepared Senate candidates will have detailed platforms in addition to catchy slogans. Look for specific and tangible measures from the candidates. Ask them how exactly they intend to improve accountability and transparency in the ASSU.
Second, endorsements really do matter. The process for most endorsing groups is quite rigorous and serious. Most involve the submission of a questionnaire concerning issue stances and an interview with the student group’s leadership. Although endorsements can be based more on ideological alignment with the group’s philosophical underpinnings or mission statement, they serve as a filtering mechanism and a good way for outsiders to gauge the effectiveness of candidates in office. The students who pile up endorsements are generally the ones who are most knowledgeable about the pertinent issues and institutional conditions.
Third, there are those who will win through “sheer force of will.” They will be the ones flyering at 2 a.m., packing in dorm visits and rotating around dining halls. They will be the ones with the most aggressive marketing campaigns, personal emails and extensive GOTV outreach. These individuals also tend to be successful legislators because the Senate is a body that allows for tremendous freedom and independence. The senator’s role is only vaguely defined and successful senators have created their own job description. Due to the high turnover rate, and the fact that few senators serve more than one term, there is little electoral accountability for the senators. Those who generate legislative progress and propel reform tend to be go-getters, eager to make the most of their time in office.
Granted, campaigning is very different from governing. Once candidates get elected, there is a significant learning curve. It takes time to develop the skill to navigate the system, work with university administrators and most of all, build consensus with fourteen other colleagues with different agendas and leadership styles.
This is the year of change election. Stanford student government politics is traditionally dominated by a “cult of personalities.” In the past, bold characters have tended to win Senate elections very much influenced by name recognition. This time, there is only one incumbent and the field is dominated by freshmen. The departure of politically influential members of the Class of 2009 at the beginning of this year, and now, the near-total retirement of this year’s Senate (including myself) have paved the way for a new era in campus politics.
Even the elections process this year has undergone significant reform. We no longer have a Fair Campaign system that placed restrictions on the number of fliers allowed and the time period permitted for campaigning activities. Less government regulation is meant to transfer power to the voters.
So take advantage of the promise and potential of this year’s elections. Spend some time getting to know the candidates and making an informed choice, and remember to vote this Thursday and Friday.
Shelley Gao’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Shelley is a second term member of the Undergraduate Senate and Senate Chair 08-09. Contact Shelley: firstname.lastname@example.org.