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Gagging the Election

The following is a guest post by MetaEzra contributor Kyle Scott '11.

The Ivy Gate blog has called it “Rebecca Blacking” one’s way into office, but I say it’s a matter of smart campaigning. Over the past year or so, the true issues appear to have taken a backseat to election theatrics centered around viral videos and gags. Is this good for student politics, or does it delegitimize the offices to which students are elected?

This is how second-place freshman SA candidate Ross Gitlin ’15 frames the issue, but I don’t think it really matters; to most students, campus governance just isn’t important.

Most recently, Peter Scelfo ’15 won a seat on the SA as one of four freshman representatives by dressing like an elf for two weeks as he campaigned around campus. The freshman elections operate to a large degree on name recognition alone, for first semester students haven’t yet come to understand Cornell well enough to build an effective platform. There’s few better ways to stand out (for good or bad) than branding oneself as the kid crazy enough to wear an elf costume to class. Scelfo also created a video in which he sings “Voting Scelfo” at various campus landmarks to the tune of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo.” As expected, the video has no platform but is not lacking in theatrics.

These theatrics – as opposed to the issues – got Scelfo elected. According to the Daily Sun, Scelfo received 146 votes more than his nearest competitor and 436 more votes than last year’s highest vote-getter. Theatrics work.

Peter’s video and elf costume gag is only the most recent. It appears this trend started with current SA President Natalie Raps ‘12, who rapped in a video, that creatively played off the 2006 SNL Digital Short “Natalie Raps,” in which Natalie Portman literally raps. Raps’ campaign video shows her rapping her platform around campus and is interspersed with what can best be described as groupies asking her questions and cheering her name. It’s lacking in substance, but it does the trick of raising her name recognition.

Alex Bores ’13 piggybacked off Raps’ video in his election for student trustee later last spring. In his video, he and his friends rap about the points that would make him a good trustee:

1. His name is Alex, and that stands for “above average”
2. He ain’t shy, and he’s an awesome kind of guy
3. He’ll increase the student voice on his very first try

To be completely fair to Bores, there is somewhat of an actual platform mixed in among the admittedly catchy chorus, but the substance is lost in the video’s fanfare and under the background music.

Does it matter that students at Cornell are arguably elected for name recognition over true legislative platform? My answer: not really. In the real world of national politics, name recognition is just as important, if not somewhat more important, than the actual issues. Voter turnout in the United States as a whole is notoriously low. People are too busy or feel too inconvenienced to vote, let alone follow each candidate on each issue. Voters may have a general sense of where a candidate stands on matters, but overall recognition and likeability are large factors that sway the popular opinion one way or another.

In campus politics, the platforms are often so vaguely worded as to not be of much value anyway. The favorite buzzwords seem to be “transparency” and “communications.” Sometimes SA candidates promise changes that are beyond their authority, such as “more funds dedicated towards mental health on campus.” The SA can support such an initiative, but its authority is limited to campus life and the Office of the Dean of Students. If the platforms are vague, and authority is limited, why not run on name recognition?

Students are just too busy focusing on their education and their personal involvement in their clubs and activities for the SA and campus politics to matter to most. Even if the platforms were filled with true substance, most would tune them out. The data supports this. According to Gitlin’s editorial, from 2005 to 2008, no freshman candidate won a seat with more than 375 votes, or about 10% of the 3,500-student first year class. Dean of Student Kent Hubbel was quoted in 2010 as stating students’ extremely busy schedules may be a cause of voter turnout.

This year, though, Scelfo won with 819 votes. The difference is in the gags. Gags seem to be what students pay attention to, and therefore what will win an election. So, if that’s what’s important, let the candidates gag all they want, and don’t criticize them for doing so. It’s a good thing. Maybe creative candidates will be the ones to effect true substantive change.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 15, 2011 (#)

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