Keys on Campaigns: How to Win and Get Off My Lawn, Not Necessarily in that Order

Hopefully you have no idea who I am. I was AMS president a brazilian years ago and by an unfortunate circumstance I’m on campus during an AMS election for the first time since 2006. Neal knew this and goaded me into writing a guest post. He suggested I write about something meaningful like a referendum question but I’m happily in the head space where I don’t particularly care.

However, as a former perennial AMS executive candidate, I’m insulted by the lacklustre campaigns I’ve seen. Brian Platt has noted the absence of campaigns and identified the problem as candidates not submitting election materials.

Why does this matter, you ask? Three reasons:

  1. It’s unhealthy for the governance of the AMS to have poorly contested campaigns,
  2. It wastes the single best moment of the year for students to learn about the AMS, what it does for them, and what it can do, and
  3. It demonstrates that any candidate who says they want better engagement between students and the AMS or students and the university (i.e. all of them) either cares little about doing something or doesn’t have the expertise to do anything.

Even the campaigns that are happening now suck. Awhile ago some nerdlinger decided that good graphic design was the same as good communications and now you get garbage posters like Ben Cappellaci’s or Carven Li’s that don’t even tell you why they’re qualified to do the job (apologies to both for being the only people with posters that I’ve seen and being on the receiving end of my wrath).

This is not the first time the subject has come up on this blog (read both the article and comments from me, some anonymous students, and a former Elections Administrator) and the lack of good, public campaigning is probably the result of the slate ban – some expertise in campaigning was lost, as was always assumed, but as the comments in that post show, the past method of semi-permanent campaigning was obnoxious.

However, it is possible to have good campaigns without annoying students. The University of Alberta Students’ Union has held information workshops a month or so prior to the campaign period to give interested students the information necessary to make an informed run at office, as well as tips about campaigning methods that have worked in the past. At the very least they still publish a booklet called “How to Run, How to Win” that’s distributed to candidates. It contains such interesting tidbits as:

  • Tips for classroom announcements,
  • Ideas for campaign organization,
  • Effectiveness of certain poster designs, and
  • Information about which faculties turn out to vote and data about typical voters.

Here are some questions that I honestly don’t know the answers to: How many candidates know how to use the SSC to target classrooms for announcements? How many actually do classroom announcements all day, every day? What’s the one trick that’s guaranteed to get you applause? How many dedicated volunteers have your teams recruited? How many do flyering anymore? The web can give lots of great information but you need to entice students to look at your material and that is done best by physically putting yourself in front of them. On the last point, I need to emphasize something: it’s empirically true.

Some will say they do their outreach on the web and that things like email are perfectly legitimate ways of campaigning. Web campaigns are important, absolutely, but they’re lazy and generally only good at tapping into people that already know you, rather than reaching out beyond your core community.

If a campaign started using the web in a systematized way that actively grabbed any student that came into contact with it, I’d have more tolerance. For instance, kudos to the campaign that uses NationBuilder to build its website next year and starts tracking the students that are actually interested in the AMS and reaches out to them directly (for crying out loud it lets you do mass texting on the cheap). As it stands, that’s nobody.

Ignore my advice if you want to or take it – ultimately it doesn’t matter to me – but I’m a person that has a fond attachment to the AMS and isn’t part of the hack circle and through active searching I can still find only scant evidence that an election campaign is happening. That should be self-evidently bad.

Spencer Keys was the 96th President of the Alma Mater Society and the first insufferable prat to start saying which number he was. He spent his time afterwards working for provincial and national student associations and working as a consulting lobbyist in Ottawa.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Nice to see someone with such a storied history in our small community of hacks come back out with a guest post.

    I agree that it’s been a bit disheartening to see that many others haven’t even bothered to start campaigning yet! However, it’s still anybody’s game at this point.

    Side note: I chose not to produce posters, handbills/flyers, rave cards or anything else on paper this year in order to run a sustainable, litter-free campaign. As you know from your experience, the election process can generate a ton of waste, much of which ends up on the ground.

    It may come back to bite me later, but it’s a decision I stand by. Hopefully in the future other candidates will do the same!

    Posted by Erik MacKinnon - UBC Board of Governors Candidate | January 18, 2012, 5:40 pm
  2. That’s cool. While I think not doing posters is a bridge too far, I respect the other choices as long as you’re coming up with alternative ways of putting yourself visibly in front of students and trying to convince them to give a turd.

    Posted by SBK | January 18, 2012, 5:55 pm
  3. Well, I hate to call this a case of your chickens coming home to roost, but none of this would have happened if slates were a part of the UBC political landscape. The campaign skills, the volunteer force, the group accountability that comes with being part of a larger team – all of that was lost when slates were banned.

    The sheer magnitude of the loss is difficult to fathom, as the institutional memory that slates took with them when they stopped existing was never codified.

    Some institutions may have other ways of encouraging good performance from independents, but at UBC it just makes no sense at all. UBC has a spectrum, has camps, and, as we saw last year, has slates. What it doesn’t have is effective slates, because the AMS foolishly bans the visible manifestation of the institution, and therefore suppresses the useful components.

    Posted by Matthew Naylor | January 18, 2012, 8:15 pm
  4. Matt, I’m not sure you have a good grasp on the issue. Say you do have a slate: how does a good candidate who isn’t part of, say, a frat (one recognized voting force), compete with candidates running on that slate? How does one find enough other candidates to run in a slate? And how does one ensure that the candidates themselves are actually all competent within a slate given that there’s usually one person who comes out being more competent and who might be willing to do more of the work in a campaign and make others look sufficiently good so as to get others to vote for them?

    Slates pose a major problem for a democracy- they fundamentally reduce the ability of a candidate who doesn’t have groupies or isn’t part of a large, identifiable group to run a campaign and to win. Enstating slates essentially means that everyone has to run on a slate, which does a huge disservice to the AMS.

    Posted by ALP | January 18, 2012, 11:12 pm
  5. That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Candidates who cannot gather a support base around them, or cannot secure the endorsement of a group which they already are a part, should not be elected.

    The slate screening process is important. People should be working to gain the trust of people involved in the slate in order to be nominated as a candidate.

    As for competency, I have very little to say to that other than the alternative doesn’t seem to be doing much better.

    The inability or unwillingness of one person to work as a part of a team, under a slate system, can and should disqualify that person from electoral success, unless they are able to barnstorm their way to victory.

    Slates are a part of a democracy, and they already exist. It’s only honest to tell the voters about them. Independent candidates are more likely to be weak, untested, and fail while in office. It’s a better way.

    Posted by Matthew Naylor | January 19, 2012, 12:49 am
  6. “Candidates who cannot gather a support base around them, or cannot secure the endorsement of a group which they already are a part, should not be elected.”

    Candidates who require the crutch of a slate to get elected by association with a team – and not on their own ideas and merits – probably shouldn’t be elected either.

    I may be mistaken, but your argument seems to be that under a slate system, any independent candidate should be assumed to have been already judged “unslateworthy” and/or not a “team player,” and the voters should not deem them worthy of consideration. By extension, candidates with viewpoints not in line with those of an established slate would – and, it appears you are arguing, should – fall in this category.

    To me, this seems to be the strongest argument of all _against_ slates.

    Posted by Jordan | January 19, 2012, 12:35 pm
  7. I didn’t say “established”. If their ideas are so good, they should be able to create a slate from scratch, or gather the requisite volunteers to mimic the organizational effect of one. I know that I personally would be very unlikely to vote for an independent.

    Voters don’t have the time or energy to go through every candidate’s platform. The hack may, but if you believe everyone cares, just look at voter turnout.

    Slates provide an important heuristic short-cut for the average voter, and it’s irresponsible to conceal the slates WHICH ALREADY EXIST from them in the public sphere. Institutionalizing them will make them better.

    Posted by Matthew Naylor | January 19, 2012, 3:02 pm
  8. I’m not sure it makes sense to me that someone interested in running for, say, VP Academic – with ideas of how that one particular portfolio should be handled – should have to join a full executive slate and implicitly endorse a full cross-portfolio platform. Not all such would-be candidates will readily find such an ideologically like-minded slate-minus-one in the waiting, ready to be made from scratch.

    The “volunteers to mimic the organizational effect of one” argument doesn’t address the point. The real advantage of slate candidates over independent candidates isn’t the cooperative group advantage of working together as a slate – it’s that it’s so much easier to vote for an entire slate than to choose individual platforms. And then there’s the resulting positive feedback: under a slate system, when independents have a history of never winning, why would you “waste your vote” on them?

    The great thing about the tacit slates that inevitably exist in the absence of a real slate system is that they’re tacit. They may be helping each other behind the scenes, but there’s no public endorsement. The average voter is no longer under the belief that “If I like Candidate A from Team 1, I’ll probably like the rest of Team 1, so I’ll just vote for Team 1″. Without package deals, voters have to actually learn about the candidates and their respective platforms. Of course, some voters aren’t sufficiently motivated to do this, and so many students who are less informed on the issues and candidates do not vote.

    …and the problem is?

    Posted by Jordan | January 19, 2012, 6:37 pm
  9. I actually like slates. Im the real Jordan.

    Posted by The Real Jordan | January 20, 2012, 7:32 pm
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