Putting the pain in campaign

There are significant barriers for students who want to be elected as the AMS executive

The teams running for AMS executive, as Teams SMH and WRL did this year, often face difficulties during the campaign period.
The teams running for AMS executive, as Teams SMH and WRL did this year, often face difficulties during the campaign period.
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Mark Asfar, ArtSci ‘14

It’s been about a month since the end of the AMS elections and my time running as the Vice-President (Operations) candidate for Team SMH.

The campaign period was a learning experience unlike any other. However, I was surprised to discover that the elections process is flawed due to issues of accessibility and some serious barriers to participation.

At the start of the campaign, every team is informed by the AMS that they’ll have a strict budget to pay for campaign materials like volunteer shirts, banners, posters and so on. This budget is in place to ensure that students aren’t limited by their finances or given an unfair advantage.

The problem is that the system doesn’t account for personal costs like clothing, food and tickets. Students who are already struggling to pay for tuition and rent are going to struggle to pay for the incidentals of campaigning.

During SMH’s campaign, the costs crept up on me. I had to get coloured clothing to match the campaign colour scheme, including a few shirts, a nice sweater and something business appropriate for the debates which totalled $120 (I literally didn’t own a single piece of green clothing).

Being on campus for 10+ hours a day meant having to buy breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee in order to keep going, which totalled approximately $100. This doesn’t include getting a pizza for your campaign booth or a case of beer to share at a volunteer meeting, which was another $80.

Just when you think you’re done, you realize you need to buy tickets to major events like the Oxfam Hunger Banquet and Queen’s Indian Students’ Association’s Formal to create a public presence. It was $70 of fantastic, but expensive, events.

All of these small costs add up to a formidable price tag in the area of $400 by the end of the campaign, and this doesn’t include the additional opportunity costs.

By campaigning, I missed out on two weeks of full-time pay — approximately $600 — that could have helped cover my growing expenses. Altogether, the campaign cost me an estimated $1,000.

These costs favour students who have access to money, or who have secure and well-paid employment. In my case, I’m lucky to belong to the latter category. AMS jobs like mine pay a decent amount, and are flexible enough to allow individuals to take off the two weeks needed for campaigning.

I fully acknowledge the privilege of my situation, but I honestly wonder how a student with limited finances or an off-campus job would be able to participate in the campaigning process. A month later, I’m still trying to get my finances back in order.

Then there’s the problem of finding time for academics. Campaigning is basically a full-time job. Candidates need to be on campus from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, at minimum, for the 10-day campaign period. That doesn’t include the weeks of preparation needed beforehand to write a platform and strategize.

A strong campaign manager and team of volunteers will help to manage the strain, but the work is still tremendous and adds up to anywhere between 50 and 60 additional hours a week. When the priority is campaigning and filling every second with class talks, booth time and meetings, a candidate’s academics are completely forgotten.

As far as I know, every candidate, myself included, skipped every class they could. I barely managed to skim the readings for my four classes and didn’t have adequate time to prepare myself for an important seminar presentation. I fell behind in my classes and my GPA suffered.

I’m lucky that the academic strain I experienced won’t impact my post-graduation goals and that my flexible schedule will allow me to recover my losses.

However, a student who needs to maintain a strong GPA for graduate school or for other applications would have to seriously consider the threat an AMS campaign could pose to their future plans.

The physical and mental demands take a toll on every candidate and volunteer. Waking up at 7 a.m. for a full day of class talks, getting home after midnight from a strategy meeting, eating when you can and running around in the cold will quickly exhaust even the healthiest person. Halfway through this year’s election period, both teams had candidates with bad colds and fevers who couldn’t afford to rest.

This creeping exhaustion was accompanied by mental and emotional drain. Students can be very passionate about AMS politics and elections, but it can become overwhelming. Aggressive questioning can quickly turn into demoralizing accusations and personal attacks.

This year, I saw some fairly crude attacks over social media levelled at my teammates, volunteers and even some of my friends. An anonymous blogger smeared my team and someone framed us for a tasteless website that insulted our competitors.

These strains can easily break a person down. There were moments when I seriously considered quitting, and I nearly had a panic attack before one of my classes when I felt overwhelmed. My team and I struggled, but we were lucky to have an incredibly strong support network. The hard work and dedication of our volunteers inspired us to make it through the campaign, and I’m grateful to every person who helped us.

For an exciting two weeks, I had the incredible opportunity to learn about the AMS and interact with the student community on a new level, and I learned a tremendous amount. Unfortunately, I was only able to have this experience because my privileged position allowed me to overcome the numerous barriers to participation.

The average student faces some serious obstacles if they want to run for AMS executive, and any sort of financial, academic or health concerns can make it impossible for them to do so.

Something needs to change if we want to continue to say that the AMS is a democratic and equal-opportunity organization that represents the diverse students at Queen’s University.

Mark was the Vice-President (Operations) candidate for Team SMH.

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