Tom Braslavsky: Settling it once and for all

I set out to get the 258 signatures formerly required to become a Student Association presidential candidate. I failed. Here is what I learned in the process.

If you are a big follower of SA drama, or if you have taken a peek at The Hatchet over the past month, you may know of the controversy over signatures that erupted this election season. Without getting into the specifics, the SA eliminated its requirement for candidates to get a set number of supportive signatures before officially being able to run for office.

This caused some debate, with supporters of the measure saying this would make elections fairer and allow for a wider spectrum of candidates and opponents saying that it would only open the field up to more joke candidates.

But the question inevitably arose: How difficult is it to actually acquire all of these signatures? Did a prospective candidate really need to be committed to the task, or could any random freshman from Thurston get the 258 signatures formerly necessary to be placed on the ballot for SA President? To try and find out, I decided to give it a shot.

My editor set some ground rules: no signature collecting in residence halls or campus housing (I hope the Ivory Tower food court didn’t count). Besides that, everything was fair game. I printed off a fake election form with numbered cells for each signature and the enticing bolded header, “Tom Braslavsky for President of the SA!”

My first stop was J Street, where I myself have often been approached with requests to sign petitions or take short surveys. To gather more signatures, I also attended my first basketball game (which was, unfortunately for me and the team, very sparsely attended) and the food court in Ivory Tower. All I was asking for were signatures, and, though tedious, it worked on many of the people I approached.

I would walk up to a single person or a group at a table and ask them if they could help me out with my campaign by “signing this sheet.” At the bottom of the page, I had hand-written (in fairly large print): “Disclaimer: I am not actually running. This is an experiment.”

It was hit-or-miss. Sometimes, students would notice the disclaimer, laugh and ask me to explain, and then sign it anyway. Other times, students merely read the headline supporting my campaign for presidency and signed a spot. Rarely, a student would say that they were already supporting another candidate – to which I’d reply that this was only so that my name could appear on the ballot and did not constitute a commitment on their part. And then there were the tough ones.

Like the girls who asked me for my platform. I scrambled to think of something and came up with some talking points. I said I would hold town halls to ask the students about the issues they held dear. I told them that I would bring Chipotle to J Street. I also said that my staff was already scheduling some awesome concerts to come to campus for next year – stars like Afroman, The Strokes, Rihanna . Rihanna was usually the clincher.

Twice, I unknowingly approached members of the Joint Election Committee. They each told me that I had the wrong form and declined to comment on the signature requirement once I explained my experiment.

Overall, gathering signatures was a good experience. I came to appreciate the determination and courage that comes with trying to approach so many new and unknown people and getting them to sign a piece of paper whose importance is purely symbolic. At the same time, it did make me once again question what role the signature requirement actually plays, since it’s so easy to convince people to sign a sheet of paper.

Truth be told, I did not end up gathering all 258 signatures in my two days of campaigning – though I did fill out my entire first sheet (I assigned the second sheet of signatures to a volunteer, well-connected campaign manager, who was too lazy to actually go out and help – talk about campaign inefficiency). But even to get my 123 signatures, I had to work a lot, spending hours amidst a busy schedule campaigning to random students.

A signature requirement does not necessarily keep out joke candidates, but it definitely keeps out lazy candidates. If you are just running as a joke, but are also a committed candidate, you can easily get all the necessary signatures over a few days. However, a signature requirement provides a deterrent to potential candidates who do not actually want to work for their place on the ballot alongside serious candidates.

The election season controversy may have been based on sincere feelings on the part of each side, or it may have been a purely political fight. But I think getting rid of a signature requirement altogether was just wrong. A ban on campaigning in residence halls, such as the one my editor imposed on me, would prevent abusive knocking on doors for signatures, and would maybe make it a bit tougher to gather them. We obviously want a wide variety of students running for office – but we also want them to be serious about their campaigns.

This online comment on The Hatchet’s editorial page about the issue just about sums up my view: “Strong leaders are those who go the extra mile to insure quality. If a candidate isn’t willing to do the work on the campaign trail, who’s to say he or she will work in office?”

The writer, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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