By Ravi Smith
Over the past week, candidates for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) have been hard at work making their case for election.
But this year, for the first time ever, outreach has been completely virtual. Whether campaigns will engage students enough to match the turnout levels of previous elections remains to be seen.
To capture students’ attention during a virtual election season, the ASSU Elections Commission has emphasized the need for candidates to be creative.
“Being creative is a really cool way in going above and beyond,” Commissioner Christian Giadolor ’21 told The Daily. “It’s helping to encourage the student body and participation in the election process.”
Virtual campaigning techniques include podcasts, custom Zoom backgrounds and social media graphics students can use to write and share their endorsements of different candidates.
“I’ve seen some really amazing ideas and amazing approaches,” Giadolor said. “I can’t speak to how proud I am of the candidates so far and how impressed I am by the quality, the competence, the intellect of this year’s candidates.”
Social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the most popular campaigning venues. Students have used both their personal profiles and campaign-affiliated profiles to campaign. Instagram has been the most popular platform, according to The Daily’s survey of candidates.
Senator Munira Alimire ’22 and ASSU executive cabinet member Vianna Vo ’21 — the only slate still in the race for ASSU Executive after Senators Martin Altenburg ’21 and Jennalei Louie ’21 dropped out — have shared their social media pages through emails to multiple campus listservs and by sharing them with friends on their personal accounts. Each of their social media platforms has around 100 followers, numbers Alimire calls “pretty solid engagement.”
The ASSU has been providing centralized platforms for candidates to post their messages. The ASSU Facebook page has spotlighted candidates’ stories and the ASSU campaign pages have remained a place for candidate statements.
In addition to the ASSU site, some candidates have created their own custom webpages to convey policy details. Current Senator Micheal Brown ’22 and the People’s Caucus, a slate of 10 candidates of color for the Undergraduate Senate, have used Google Docs linked to their Instagram accounts to publish their platforms.
With the intention of encouraging more candidate-student interaction, the ASSU Elections Commission has also mandated that every candidate conduct at least one campaign event over Zoom.
The People’s Caucus held one such “rally” over Zoom on Saturday, which took the place of the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) rally normally held in White Plaza. The rally featured short speeches by each People’s Caucus candidate, as well as Alimire and Vo. However, the rally was “Zoom-bombed” by a group of individuals who said, wrote and drew racist slurs and images across the shared screens. The rally ended up being conducted as a conference call.
Instead of relying solely on students to come across their pages, many candidates are also reaching out directly to students via email and group chats. The Elections Commision provided candidates with addresses of campus listservs in an attempt to level the potential inequities in access to email lists.
Earlier in the quarter, concerns over inequities in online reach prompted the ASSU to consider delaying elections to the fall. The commission initially reasoned that in-person campaigning, such as tabling in White Plaza and posting flyers around campus, was equally accessible to all candidates. Without these standard forms of campaigning, a candidate’s access to campus listservs and the size of their social media following would have an outsized influence on their ability to reach voters.
Before digital elections were announced, Vo was concerned that such elections could effectively turn into “a popularity contest.” After campaigning, Vo says she has seen firsthand that the online medium has negatively impacted the elections due to campaigns’ dependence on social media. Other ASSU candidates have voiced similar concerns.
“I do not believe the majority of the undergraduate body is being reached because of limitations like social media use or lack of centralized communication on election matters,” wrote Maryam Khalil ’23, a candidate for Undergraduate Senate, in an email to The Daily. “I think that this campaign is mostly [sic] been affecting students who actively use social media.”
Senate candidate Gabriella Garcia ’23 is also concerned that the provided email lists have not been enough and that campaigning depends on popularity.
“I wish [the Elections Commision] would help us in providing us access to more email lists,” Garcia wrote to The Daily. “Since we are mostly limited to social media, then it becomes a popularity contest of who has more followers, so who has the farthest reach.”
Senate candidate Emily Guo ’23 discussed the insular nature of virtual campaigning in a statement to The Daily.
“You’re limited to the people you’re friends with, and the people your friends are friends with (and so on),” wrote Guo. “I definitely think the voters care about each candidate’s platforms, but it’s also a matter of whose platforms even come across their radar.”
A lack of in-person campaigning has also prevented candidates from conducting outreach beyond their immediate social spheres. Alimire emphasized the difficulty of reaching graduate students.
“You have to really actively engage or like actively get involved with people who are part of different communities or part of different bubbles, like grad student outreach, knowing [what settings] grad students occur a lot more,” Alimire said.
Candidates were also disappointed that they could not interact with voters on a personal level. Campaigning online is mostly a one-way affair, with candidates broadcasting their messages out to an unknown audience.
“In general, the authentic, personal experiences of campaigning are limited,” wrote Senate candidate Michaela Phan ’23 to The Daily.
“A big drawback [to virtual campaigning] is that we don’t necessarily know who we’re reaching,” wrote Alina Wilson ’23, another candidate for Undergraduate Senate. “We just post things hoping someone is listening.”
In response to these candidates’ assertions, Giadolor cited the ASSU Facebook page and website as centralized platforms for candidates and maintained that campaigning has not hinged entirely on social connections.
“We would like to push back on the notion that the election has been a popularity contest because it has not,” Giadolor wrote in a statement on behalf of the Elections Commission. “Candidates have gone above and beyond and to reduce their efforts to whose social media pages had more followers is inaccurate and unfair.”
Giadolor also explained why the email lists the Commision provided were limited.
“Initially, we wanted to provide email listservs to candidates,” he wrote. “However, as we realized that some of these emails provide entry into safe spaces for underserved and vulnerable communities, we decided that sharing listservs would be improper.”
Some candidates agree that campaigning online has not been a disadvantage.
“During shelter-in-place and social distancing, people are checking their social media accounts more frequently than they normally would,” wrote Senate candidate Lenny DeFoe ’21. “Therefore, I believe more people are seeing and interacting with all the candidates because they have more time and availability to do so.”
These candidates believe that social media engages a greater audience of students than could normally be reached.
“I’m really trying to reach a lot of people with the tools I’m able to use, and I don’t feel like I’m at a disadvantage with this form of campaigning,” wrote Senate candidate Gabrielle Crooks ’23.
Candidates have tried several mediums to attempt to engage students, but the question looms of whether it will be enough to get students to vote. Giadolor says that Stanford has “historically had issues with turnout.” At only 34% total voter turnout, last year’s election saw only half of undergraduates participating, and only 22% of the graduate student population — numbers lower than the previous year’s 57% and 34%, respectively.
But Giadolor says he has been impressed by the engagement he’s seen from students this year.
“We’re going to see how a virtual election happens,” he said. “I am hoping that we can get turnout that matches what we had last year and perhaps even exceeds last year.”