University News

Detours enliven UCS, UFB campaign trail

Write-ins, joke campaigns, unexpected withdrawals give color to Council elections history

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Though joke candidates are less common at Brown than at some other universities, in 2007 a candidate was nominated by his friends for Undergraduate Council of Students president without his knowledge.

Elections start this week for the Undergraduate Council of Students and the Undergraduate Finance Board, but past races have run into hiccups due to occurrences ranging from joke campaigns to candidate withdrawals.

Joke campaigns

Eric Mukherjee ’09 did not know he had run for UCS president until after he had already been disqualified.

The 2007 Elections Board disqualified him after he missed both the mandatory elections information session and the candidates meeting and failed to submit proper campaign materials, The Herald reported

When The Herald contacted Mukherjee about his campaign, it was the first he had heard of it, and he was “flabbergasted” to learn of his campaign. Mukherjee wrote in an email to The Herald that when he hung up the phone, he immediately asked his roommates, “What did you do?”

Ben Struhl ’09, along with the help of about 30 of Mukherjee’s other friends, was responsible for the campaign that ran “on a platform of abolishing UCS,” The Herald reported. They hoped to keep the secret from him throughout the nomination and debate process, Mukherjee said, adding that no one from the group had previously participated in Brown student government.

2015 Elections Board Chair Heather Sabel ’17 said such a campaign would theoretically be permissible. “Our goal is to maintain the quality of elections, regardless of what anyone’s platform is, so even if it (were) something that extreme where a candidate wanted to abolish UCS, our job is to make sure that if the student body wants that person elected, then that person gets elected regardless of what we personally think of that platform,” she said. “That’s true of any platform that any candidate takes.”

“As a student, I think it’s hilarious. As a member of UCS, I don’t,” said UCS President Maahika Srinivasan ’15. “As someone who spends my time and energy and lifeblood in this it’s so sad to see people who actively mock … student government and the power that the body has in general.”

Once Mukherjee became aware of his friends’ prank, he tried following through with the campaign and took it up with the Elections Board. “There’s nowhere in the rules (where) it actually says that you have to know that you’re nominated,” he said. “It’s not codified, and we were absolutely correct, but of course we were disqualified, and then there was a big thing to try to write me in after that. It all kind of died off quickly,” he added.

After Mukherjee’s removal from the ballot, one of the people responsible for the campaign submitted an op-ed about the entire process under the pseudonym Jon Nakatamo ’08, Mukherjee said. Mukherjee said he felt bad for angering The Herald’s then-editor-in-chief, but added that he believes that the paper should allow pseudonyms for op-eds.

“It varied from person to person, but people did it for maybe 50 percent humor reasons and 50 percent anti-establishment reasons,” he said, describing the experience as “eye-opening.”

“At other schools, it’s more common for a less serious candidate to run almost on a yearly basis,” said UCS Vice President Sazzy Gourley ’16. “We don’t see that very often here.”

The November 2014 race for Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government President ended with a run-off election between Ella Cheng and her defeated opponent William Gansa. Gansa ran on a platform of waffle fries and “implementing ‘bike reform,’ a mysterious term that (was) included in his platform but (was) defined nowhere,” the Daily Princetonian reported.

In Harvard’s February 2014 Undergraduate Council elections, where candidates run on tickets, Samuel Clark  and Gus Mayopoulos “won on a ‘joke’ platform, and Mayopoulos assumed the role of UC president after Clark’s resignation,” the Harvard Crimson reported. The ticket campaigned with a poster for “tomato basil ravioli soup every day,” adding, “You could do worse.”

Joke candidacies “definitely liven the mood and poke fun at student government in a way that makes other candidates really think critically about the role that we have on campus and the impact that we’re actually having on the daily lives of students,” Gourley said. “I hope we can talk about serious issues but do so in a way that is accessible for all students” and maintains the “fun and engagement and creativity that those more joke tickets sometimes bring to the table,” he added.

Writing In

But an untraditional campaign is not necessarily a joke campaign.

Marc Marchiel ’92 staged a write-in candidacy for UCS President in 1991 because “there was only one candidate, which did not feel right,” Marchiel wrote in an email to The Herald. After deciding to run, Marchiel was able to “print out enough flyers to go under every dorm room on campus and go to every dorm and then place posters all over school” all in the same night, he wrote.

“You would think with a politically active school like Brown, (lack of involvement) would not be an issue,” Marchiel added. “With one candidate, there is no choice, no election — really just a coronation.” His platform focused on security, the housing lottery and recycling, The Herald reported.

Marchiel was able to campaign without following election rules because he was not an official candidate. “Part of the freedom … was the ability to hit every single person (and) room in the school in a single night,” he wrote. But the rogue nature of the campaign also had its drawbacks. “Obviously not being on the ballot or campaigning the whole time would hurt. If I had Twitter and everyone had email then, I could have been done in 10 minutes,” he wrote.

According to the current Elections Code, a candidate must win five percent of the total votes cast for any candidate in the entire election. The 2012 Elections Board “amended the code because there really (were not) any rules for write-in candidates in terms of winning an election,” Srinivasan said.

Marchiel said he was “amazed” to win 17.34 percent of the vote, The Herald reported. “I had more than one friend point out that campaigning on people’s apathy and then turning that apathy into action seemed contradictory,” Marchiel wrote. “When you start with nothing and then a day later you get 17 percent, that is amazing,” he wrote.

“But I will also confess to being a little disappointed,” he added. “Despite the odds, when you do something like that, you want to win.”

Gourley said there are write-ins for various positions during every election.

Some students see the write-in option as an opportunity to make a statement, as has been the case in elections at other universities.

This year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 10 percent of the total vote for student body president “went to writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who attended drama classes at UNC in secret before the university admitted students of color,” the Daily Tar Heel reported. Students decided to organize a display of  “dissatisfaction with the student body presidential candidates,” the Tar Heel reported.

“Hurston is a rallying call right now for students who believe that Saunders Hall, whose current namesake is a former university trustee that led the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800s … should be renamed to honor Hurston,” the article states. Other voters wrote in “UNC calls for Hurston Hall” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Withdrawal

Just as candidates may enter a race unexpectedly, they can exit it unexpectedly, too.

2011 Class President and Herald Staff Writer Neil Parikh ’11 withdrew from the 2009 race for UFB Vice Chair after he was caught removing his opponent Juan Vasconez’s ’10 campaign posters, which were hung in Wriston Quadrangle locations that violated election rules. The 2009 Elections Board gave Parikh the option to withdraw or face a full board hearing, The Herald reported.

Parikh could not be reached by press time.

“One of the main complaints that Elections Board gets is that ‘people are taking down my posters,’” she said. “People will tend to try to accuse other people of doing so, but it was a very unique case in which there was proof that he was taking them down.”

Enforcing penalties usually poses a challenge because “any number of people can be doing it,” Srinivasan added. “If it’s pretty obvious that materials are going missing and it’s not a facilities cleanup … there’s precedent that we’ll give them extra publicity points to be able to reprint the posters that they need.”

To level the playing field and avoid any financial advantages, Elections Board allots each candidate 100 advertising “points” or $40 of a candidate’s own money — whichever limit is reached first — for any material related to the campaign, Srinivasan said. UCS does not provide any funding, and every material is assigned a point value based on features like color and dimension, she added.

Parikh’s withdrawal left Vasconez uncontested. “It’s so unfortunate because one of my biggest pet peeves is uncontested elections, especially for a position like UCS president,” Srinivasan said. “That’s just such a shame.”

Elections Board will hold a mandatory candidates meeting today at 9 p.m. in the Underground. The Herald and UCS will co-host the candidates’ debate Thursday at 7 p.m. in Salomon 001. Student groups must attend the debate to be eligible to officially endorse candidates.

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