The Unchanging Faces of CCSC Elections

The Unchanging Faces of CCSC Elections

Our first-year election system might be broken

Published on October 4, 2016

It is Sunday, September 25, and 312 Math is nearly empty. I am sure the classroom is empty most Sundays, but on this particular Sunday, its emptiness is being live-streamed onto Facebook. The scene being filmed: fall election debates. The first round is between candidates running for Columbia College Student Council class of 2020 president and vice president.  

Nearly empty. The candidates and Columbia Election Board members are, of course, there. As am I, armed with a laptop and ready to document… well, something.  

More than anything, sitting there I feel like a hypocrite: In my head, a paragraph describing the empty room is already beginning to take shape (you know—the one you just read) as a scathing comment on the visible (lack of) public interest in CCSC affairs. The truth, however, is that for the two elections for which I’ve been at Columbia and eligible to vote in, I didn’t go to the debates either. More on this in a bit—the debate’s starting.

***

All the people on stage waiting to speak are Columbia College first-years; they seem to me, as a collective, nervous. The first speaker is James Ritchie, vice presidential candidate for the party Lion Heart. He starts confidently, addressing no one in particular. He is concerned, he says, with school spirit—“giving our Lions their pride back.” A simple way to rebuild this would be to give out free T-shirts at NSOP, in lieu of many of the other, less useful items handed out.

Lion Heart’s presidential candidate, Siddharth Singh—Sid—is next. Carrying on from where Ritchie finished, Singh underlines that Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. It only makes sense, then, that Lion Heart fight for a subsidized subway rate. It’s been an issue students have faced for a while now. Lion Heart isn’t alone, though: Two other parties, Morningside Five and Mafia, propose the same core subway idea, though with different implementations.

We go through the line of candidates who are standing on the stage at the front, each boldly proclaiming their main platform points to the iPhone recording them at the back of the room. Alex Ashton of Blue Crew, for instance, calls for PawPrint documents to not time out after two hours. Nima Mozhgani of Morningside Five wants to create a rental service for iClickers and other school supplies.

Next comes the questioning—describing his unified web-based system proposal in response to a question, Mathieu Sabbagh of Blue Anew says that “making bureaucracy a thing of the past is the single most important thing as a member of CCSC.”

The whole debate reminds me of being at a high school Model United Nations conference. Big ideas in well-fitted suits; smart, passionate people; the nagging feeling that some of the things being said are not even remotely realistic.

***

Singh and Ritchie—the Lion Heart candidates that opened the debate—first met at a reception in England earlier this year, but the two didn’t talk until the International Student Orientation Program in August. They hit it off instantly. Ritchie, who was chairman at his high school, knew that student council would be something he was interested in—but only if he found someone to run with. “Sid was the definitely the guy,” he says.

They aren’t running alone, though: They have scouted representatives to run on their ticket from a variety of places. Astrid Walker-Stewart lives on Ritchie’s floor and is in Singh’s Frontiers of Science section; Danielle Resheff was in Singh’s NSOP group, and she knows Grant Pace; all three of them are now on the ticket.

In Singh’s words, they looked for people who were “determined, driven, [and] wanted to make a difference.”

***

Just months earlier, in the spring of this year, Columbia College sophomore Yerv Melkonyan was running his second election at Columbia. That previous fall, in 2015, he ran for a position on the Columbia College class of 2019 council as the presidential candidate of the Surprise Party, with Justin Whitehouse as his VP candidate.

Let’s focus on that fall campaign for a second. Outside a FroSci lecture at Teachers College, attended by about half their 2019 class, Pantone 292—a competing party—is handing out palm cards as campaign material. Melkonyan is, in his own words, “dismayed.” As someone running against Pantone 292, this is bad—he knows this is a very smart strategy, evidently more effective than musical comedy.

Talking to me, Melkonyan is energized. He has a charming, infectious grin, and apparently talking about CCSC elections brings that out in him often. A sophomore now, he is quite straightforward in his assessment of the first-year fall elections. “I think in September, the key to winning is: Personality has to shine through, more so than just—quite frankly—ideas.”

I have to agree with him. And, more than the personality of a person, it appears to be about the personality of a party—their brand. Looking back at that fall election, the first election I voted in at Columbia, I can’t remember anything any of the parties proposed. I do, however, remember Pantone 292’s professional, stylish photos and their striking name. Columbia College sophomore Katie Cooke, a representative of the Surprise Party last fall, backs up the importance of the name, “especially since [Columbia College Dean James] Valentini talked about [Pantone 292] in his commencement address. … It was really quick to catch on.”

“I think in September, the key to winning is: Personality has to shine through. More so than just—quite frankly—ideas.”

—Yerv Melkonyan, CC ’19

Pantone 292, led by Josh Schenk and Sophie Broadbent, did end up winning, with 137 votes (after losing 30 to a rules violation), to Melkonyan and Whitehouse’s 121. Mina Mahmood and Ricardo Jaramillo—the Fresh Start Party—came in third, closely behind, with 109.

***

Ideas, issues, and platforms made up the collective elephant in the room in this year’s CCSC class of 2020 elections, where everyone seemed to be promising either the world, or a very specific first-year hall concern. That’s quite a large spatial gap to cover.

Three weeks into my first year, I’m not sure I knew where Butler Library was (still not sure—is it the one with the dome?), and so, to every first-year candidate I talked to, I asked the same question: How, in three weeks, have they all managed to build comprehensive, issue-focused, and electable platforms?

The answer to this question rests upon the answer to a much larger, more important question: What gets people elected in first-year races? The idea of running a campaign for people you don’t fully know yet, about a school you don’t really know yet, intrigues me. Is it platforms and issues that gets people elected in the fall?

The short and perhaps intuitive conclusion to reach is, as Melkonyan says, that first-year platforms aren’t important in elections, and they’re not well thought out, either. Talking about first-year elections generally, former CCSC President Ben Makansi, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016, says that candidates “put policies on their platforms that just indicate their complete lack of knowledge about what issues are actually facing students.”

Cooke feels similarly about her own platform in the fall. The ideas she ran on came from her own limited experience—it was only her first year in council that helped her realize that “these things aren’t actually that practical or doable. The student council just doesn’t have reign over the things that they want to make changes about.”

This idea that first-year policies are inherently rooted in their specific set of experiences is echoed by current CCSC President Nicole Allicock, a junior at Columbia College. Laughing, she looks back at the platform of her first-year party: One of the issues it focused on was fixing the Carman Hall laundry room, which was broken at the time. It’s such a small, specific issue, so detached from the larger community. Other platforms, she says, have more to do with community: A lot of students come into Columbia hearing about the lack of school spirit and think of that as a challenge they can address.

It’s clear that this is a trope—this impression of Columbia without spirit is echoed even this year, in Lion Heart’s pledge to “give our Lions their spirit back” and Ritchie’s school T-shirt plan. Ritchie explains to me how, even before coming, his friends teased him about Columbia’s supposed lack of community. It’s not that he buys into this idea necessarily, but that his mindset is that “if other people can’t see that [we care about the University], let’s make them see that.” First-year platforms like Ritchie’s, therefore, follow predictable patterns.

This isn’t, in any way, an indictment of Lion Heart or any of the other candidates—no first-year can truly claim to have an understanding of campus or the way it works. That understanding comes with time. As a sophomore, I’m not sure I fully “get it” yet, either.

Besides, Singh and Ritchie are well aware of the difficulties first-year candidates face, at least in terms of planning a well-constructed platform. To combat this, Singh explains to me the way that his team members went door to door, asking their peers about their own ideas and concerns.

They also know, for example, that some of the things they propose as first-years have been brought up before; some proposals are just too big and inaccessible. Lion Heart members aren’t, in Ritchie’s words, so “arrogant as to presume” that their ideas were entirely novel, but just because something’s difficult to accomplish, it “doesn’t mean we should end the conversation.” Perhaps this is shining idealism; perhaps it’s just idealism that hasn’t met ground realities yet. Either way, there’s a self-reflectiveness that’s understood and measured on Lion Heart’s part.

Other first-year candidates share the concern that being a first-year is so removed from CCSC that it makes the elections hard to run. Mozhgani calls this a double-edged sword. “We’re new to it, so we really don’t know what we can change, and have the power to change, we kind of just observe things and make judgements on how we feel about them. And that’s good to have a fresh perspective, but also it makes some things unrealistic.”

***

But looking at first-year elections only through the lens of platforms leaves our understanding vastly incomplete. As is demonstrated by the case of Melkonyan and Pantone 292, campaigning is often what really drives the election.

How do first-year candidates campaign? What does it mean to get a student body that barely knows you to agree to let you be its voice for a year?  

For Lion Heart, campaigning was all about the person to person, the door to door. Singh explains to me that he and Ritchie focused on the personal, individual interactions. Sabbagh, of Blue Anew, likes videos. They can be shared easily, he explains. Mozhgani, from Morningside Five, says his party did palm cards, slipping them under doors and into key holes.

What, I ask, about popularity? Sabbagh seems to think that it has some power—enough to provide a “slight edge,” even if not win a candidate the election.

In short, there’s nothing new here—the campaigning of this first-year election seems very expected in many ways: Across different conversations, I hear about marketing strategies based on posters, canvassing, and social media, all combined with the added bonus of popularity. It seems as though the election hinges just on who happens to get these things right.

***

It’s interesting to put this first-year fall campaign in juxtaposition with the preparation and campaigning of a spring run. And so we’re back to Melkonyan.

As I said, Melkonyan and the Surprise Party lost that fall—arguably, an uninteresting point to make. The loss was just the outcome of the particular marketing strategies of that fall election.

What is interesting, though, and arguably something that cannot be explained solely by campaign strategy, is what happened later that following spring.

This time around, Melkonyan was better prepared. Although they had never spoken before, he reached out to Mahmood: He texted her proposing “a merger between Surprise and Fresh Start.” The three met at John Jay for dinner: Melkonyan, Mahmood, and Jaramillo. They instantly hit it off; amidst laughter, Upgrade was born.

The merger between the two parties was an objectively smart decision; when combined, both parties had won enough votes in the fall (over 100 each) to take the majority away from Pantone 292, which got 167. It was clear that, according to Melkonyan, in a strictly mathematical dimension, they had a “hell of a lot of votes.” Upgrade would be a “pretty menacing opposition.”

The team combined these mathematical odds with a campaign strategy that was as rigorous and thorough as can be expected of a student council race at Columbia. Campaign managers were hired. There were spreadsheets involved, too. Large ones. “We compiled all of our friends that we had in the class of 2019 group, between the five of us, which … came up to roughly 700 names,” Melkonyan explains. “We put our initials down to the person that we thought we knew the best within that.”

Each person became part of a candidate’s “block.” All five Upgrade candidates—Melkonyan and Mahmood, plus their representative candidates: Jaramillo, Chang, and Poorvi Bellur—had their own blocks, people they reached out to, whether across campus or on Facebook, always super careful about any rules violations.

They also conducted what can only be described as a social media blitz. At 6:00 p.m. on the day campaigning began, Upgrade flooded Facebook. They had six different posters, plus a supporter cover photo. Each candidate was also responsible for getting 10 people to change their cover photo—that’s 50 people in a class with a large number of mutual friends. There is a genuine delight in Melkonyan’s voice as he explains this to me: It is clear that this campaign, and Upgrade, is something of which he is still proud.

What Melkonyan and Upgrade didn’t do, though, and what Pantone 292 (or, more accurately, the newly dubbed Pantone 292.0) did do—again—was distribute FroSci palm cards. Upgrade tried to make up for it, though. They emailed professors with large first-year class populations, asking to be allowed to speak. They ended up managing to make pitches at Principles of Economics and General Chemistry. “[It] is not as hard-hitting as FroSci, but we still got some people out there.” Melkonyan says.

The strategy of all this, as is perhaps self-evident by the name, was to oppose. “The strategy was … to show that we are another option,” Malkonyan explains. “It’s to show we are different, we are an upgrade, we are another alternative who will succeed in CCSC.”

It seems hard to lose an election with this kind of preparation, this kind of support. And yet.

Come election day (election days, technically, because voting takes place from Monday to Wednesday, but saying “days” doesn’t quite have the same gravitas), Pantone 292.0 won four of the five spots on the class of 2019 council. There was a sense of a general collective upward movement. Schenk chose to run for a place on the University Senate, so Broadbent, last year’s vice president, took the president’s spot. Adam Resheff, elected as a class representative on the Surprise Party, and now on Pantone, moved into the vice presidency. Upgrade won one spot for Jaramillo as a class representative. (It nearly won two, though; Bellur tied with Alex Cedar, but eventually lost to him in a special runoff election.)

So why did Pantone 292.0 win? (It would, of course, have been useful to talk to them, but Broadbent, Resheff, and Schenk were all too busy to comment.)

Melkonyan, though, first begins explaining it in terms of the people on the two parties—and how that impacted where various peoples’ friends voted. Then, he turns to what he calls the “incumbency bonus.”

Melkonyan highlights how, throughout the year, Broadbent was able to highlight the work Pantone 292 was doing on the council. He refers, also, to Schenk’s work in getting air conditioning into lounges—in short, people associated student council work with Pantone 292.

Cooke, the Surprise Party-elected class representative from the fall, campaigned for Pantone 292.0 in the spring, after having worked with the team on the council for a year. Her advice to Broadbent was very similar—to let Pantone 292’s name recognition carry it through. “And then I’d recommended to Sophie that instead of just sticking with the name Pantone 292, to just change it a little bit, just so that it’s a new name. But it’s so blatantly obvious that it’s the same vision, the same party essentially.”

This—the re-election of Pantone 292.0—is only one example of an observable, demonstrated trend: First-year winners get re-elected. In order to track this trend, I created a large spreadsheet (hey, you’ve got to learn something from the people you interview), with student council data for the last 10 years.

Of the 50 first-year elects in the last 10 years (five per year: president, VP, and three representatives), 37 have been re-elected to a position, typically in a contested race, either on the council or in the University Senate at some point in their time at Columbia—33 that very spring. The winners of first-year elections have been, clearly, at an advantage in subsequent elections. Their incumbency is a formidable electoral factor.

It could, of course, be argued that this figure reflects a self-selecting group—that people are just not as eager to participate in student council after a year of having discovered other pursuits across campus. That said, it doesn’t change the fact that getting elected in the fall provides a candidate with an excellent set up to stay on council; regardless of reason, incumbency allows a candidate to stay on.

Certain examples help underline how far this incumbency can carry candidates. Conan Cassidy and Joanna Kelly stayed elected as the Columbia College class of 2014 president and vice president for four years. Learned Foote, who graduated Columbia College in 2011, was class president for his first three years, before he got elected to executive board presidency in his senior year.

Current CCSC Vice President Abby Porter, a Columbia College senior, helps provide insight into this concept. Talking about how her time in CCSC helped her run elections the year after, she says, “It helped in being able to say that I’m not going to need any time to figure out the system and how it worked, I’m just going to hit the ground running.”

I asked Katherine Welty, chair of the Columbia Elections Board, about this incumbency advantage. She too draws attention to the same core idea: Incumbents carry the bonus of being the ones the voters have seen do work through the year, on Facebook, at events. “So if you don’t know who you want to vote for, or if you’re not taking a terribly long time, that’s an easy vote.”

This incumbency factor clearly defines the council for the four years the elected members are on. In the last 10 years, six of the CCSC executive board presidents have been elected in their first year.

Still, there are important nuances to add to the conversation about incumbency: Is it always necessarily a negative phenomenon?

Allicock and Porter are both balanced in their consideration of incumbency—there is, naturally, a case for and against it.

They both highlight the importance of new voices as bringing fresh perspectives; non-incumbents can look at old ideas that veteran CCSC members may perhaps take for granted and bring novel approaches. “I’ve been in student council for three years now. There are things that I think of as, this will never change. And then, because of that, I like having a new person who’s like, ‘Well we should try it this way; we should try it again,’ who takes a fresh look at it,” Allicock explains.

Though, of course, experience and institutional memory are always important, also. “I think it is helpful to have people who know the ropes,” Porter notes. Still, she underlines that this should never be prioritized over people who can think creatively and out of the box. As president, Allicock explains that she does draw on her experience of being on the council under previous presidents and learning from the ways in which they managed their councils.

Talking to Porter and Allicock, veteran members of the council, both elected in their first year, it occurs to me that incumbency is not inherently malicious. It’s important we don’t make the actual council members soft targets when examining large scale incumbency: It is a larger, structural issue, going beyond even the best intentions of CCSC members.

***

What is the natural end point of this cycle of incumbency that begins in the first year? Spring 2015 seems to provide us one example—a buildup of frustration and apathy toward the student council that gave birth to a satirical campaign.

The Freedom, Liberty and Freedom party did not actually make its first appearance in the spring of 2015. Columbia College graduates of 2016 Ben Makansi and Vivek Ramakrishnan had taken a crack at running in the previous year in the race for junior class council. They lost that election by 64 votes—about 10 percent.

The loss only strengthened the underlying beliefs of the party and the reason that both of them ran. “That experience almost reaffirmed some of our reasons for running, which was that CCSC can be very exclusive and it is extremely difficult to break into it, unless you run as an outsider with incumbents,” Makansi says. “Or unless incumbents decide to run for something else one year because they have higher aspirations.”

Come the following spring, Makansi and Ramakrishnan were unsure of whether or not to try again, to run or not to run. At the last minute, the night of registration, they went for it—“Let’s try to make a statement.”

And what statement, exactly?

“One was the fact that a lot of people go into student council just to pad their resume.” The cover photo of their campaign’s Facebook page (still up, and worth checking out) alludes to this—”Help a brother get an internship,” it reads, positioned over a Wall Street sign.

But more than just making political points about the people in council, Makansi and Ramakrishnan were fighting a culture of self-seriousness. “We were definitely making a statement about how candidates take themselves so seriously during the election and when they’re in office,” he says. Makansi points to the façade: “You look at these things and you’re like, ‘I’ve been out drinking with you.’”

With reference to all of these criticisms, though, he clarifies: “That’s not everyone in student council, that’s [just] kind of the culture.”

Makansi also underlines the idea that “there’s nothing inherently special about people in student council that sets them apart. And I think that student politicians can sometimes lose sight of that.”

And so, the Freedom, Liberty and Freedom campaign was the antithesis to this idea. “We had fun with it.”

“Fun” characterized itself in the form of pillow fights in Butler, wearing an American flag tank top with denim short shorts to the debates, and a strong, consistent outpouring of memes.

That’s not to say, though, that nothing held up the satire. Rewatching the debates, it’s clear that, while Makansi and Ramakrishnan made many jokes (“We dream of a better Columbia … where all students have better housing lottery numbers”), there was, on their part, a genuine interest in, and commitment to, winning the election.

“CCSC can be very exclusive and it is extremely difficult to break into it, unless you run as an outsider with incumbents.”

—Ben Makansi, CC ’16 and CCSC President 2015-2016

The two speak passionately on a number of issues, from prison divest to sexual respect; the humour here stays in check. When they are serious, there is an anger in their speech—a restrained energy. There is a clear line between the time to joke and the time to not.  

In his closing statement at the debate, Makansi is passionate, even loud. He reminds those watching that there’s actually a point to the satire, jokes, and self-deprecation. “We have become apathetic about CCSC over our time at Columbia, and I think a lot of students are fed up with the kind of seriousness with which campaigns take themselves.”

“With administrative bullshit,” Makansi adds.

According to Makansi, their farcical, humorous tone resonated with people—“We tried to communicate with people in a way where they actually paid attention.” Looking at their campaign materials—or campaign memes, really—it isn’t hard to see what they meant. Photos range from those those of the two of them gyming to them sitting in front of a hilariously large American flag.

The win may not have been overwhelming, but it’s clear by the fact that they won—against Peter Bailinson, who graduated Columbia College in 2016, and Porter, two executive board incumbents, at that—that this core principle resonated with people. Makansi and Ramakrishnan’s win reflects, at least to some degree, that a good proportion of the student body does see CCSC as overly exclusive and self-serious.

It might be tempting to read into Freedom, Liberty and Freedom’s win, to call the election result some sort of grand foreshadowing of the presidential primaries: outsiders (Makansi and Ramakrishnan: Bernie and Trump) out to change a broken institution (an insular CCSC: all of American politics, apparently).

The truth, though, it seems to me, is more complicated.  

I came across the term “anti-candidate” earlier this summer—David Foster Wallace uses the term to describe Senator John McCain in his essay for Rolling Stone magazine in 2000, “Up, Simba.” To read Wallace describe the attention McCain was getting at the time is surprising—it reads like the Bernie phenomenon has already happened, but far right instead of far left, and 16 years ago. We’ve just forgotten, already.

“500 kids at 3:00 a.m. out of their minds for enthusiasm for…a politician.” This quote could be about a Sanders rally as easily as it could be about McCain. And that’s my point. It seems to me that the outsider, the anti-candidate who seems entirely opposed to the system as we understand it, is nothing new. Eight years before the publication of the essay, in 1992, the outsider took the form of Ross Perot, a third party presidential candidate who won an unprecedented 19 percent of the popular vote.

Makansi and Ramakrishnan’s win helps us understand, then, not some large-scale shift away from “the institution,” but rather that sometimes popular frustrations can take the form of renegade anti-candidates.

That raises a natural follow up question: To what extent did Makansi and Ramakrishnan succeed in changing that collective impression of CCSC?

On one hand, Makansi himself acknowledges that it was difficult for him and Ramakrishnan to implement a wholesale change—they didn’t see their close win as enough of as a sign from the student body. To them, a good number had still voted for Bailinson and Porter, for the existing CCSC structure.

Instead, Makansi says, he refocused his emphasis on communication with the student body—through social media and summary emails. There was also an emphasis on student events, and relationships with administrators were slightly more informal.

Makansi and Ramakrishnan also focused on changing culture within CCSC meetings: Makansi would put the agenda and speaker list up on the screen; he tried to keep conversations focused and productive, “weeding out the fluffy bullshit that just wastes time.” By the end of the year, CCSC also started live-streaming their meetings.

It is, of course, too early to gauge accurately any lasting impacts of this kind of cultural shift; although Columbia College this year has elected “veteran” candidates, it is possible that Makansi and Ramakrishnan’s frustrations with council inaccessibility have left lasting change.

***

Lion Heart won the class of 2020 elections—perhaps you already guessed that. Ritchie was in rehearsal for a play when he found out; his phone began buzzing relentlessly and he quickly guessed what the news might be. Singh was in his room, doing homework with friends, when the banner for the results email popped up. He saw his name in bold and could barely string words together—his roommate has the reaction on video. It was a big a moment for him.

But it is, I think, just as big a moment for the class of 2020. First-year fall elections might just be the most important one for any given class year. It’s counterintuitive—the first-year election takes place three weeks into school; candidates and the electorate are both almost equally ill-informed.

There is power in getting elected in the fall—it gives parties and candidates an electoral power that’s hard to shake, keeping them in council for extended, repeated runs. In many ways, future executive boards begin to form from the moment first-years cast their votes in the fall.

Singh and Ritchie are both clearly passionate individuals; they want to work for their class. I just wonder if the class of 2020 knows they’ve potentially elected their class council for next spring, already. And maybe even the year after that. And, maybe, for the one after that as well.

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