This spring election cycle marks my first full year on the Columbia Elections Board, and I can tell you: it’s been quite a ride. At Columbia, everything pertaining to student council elections is student-run. We do have an excellent adviser, Josh Lucas, but most major decisions and responsibilities lie with us, the members of CEB. We not only make the ballots, but also book rooms for meetings, host debates, advertise on social media, interact with candidates, and resolve rule violations—and there are many heated arguments over the last one.
After having worked on more than five elections, I have some thoughts to share about what both CEB and the student body can do to make elections better for everyone.
Elections are a huge undertaking; there’s no denying that. I think I’ve sent more than 200 emails over the course of this year’s elections alone. Because CEB has traditionally been a small body, we’ve had our share of problems in the past. It’s easy to think of CEB as either incompetent or dysfunctional, because we receive the most student attention when something goes wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that we make mistakes. But we make sure to learn from those mistakes so that we can get better every year.
Being on CEB is a thankless job, but for once, I’d like both the old and the new members of CEB—in particular, Kate Welty, Sam Henick, Natalie Chee, Chase Manze, Sang Ra, and Audrey Oh—to be recognized for their hard work and commitment rather than for their mistakes. Previous chairs Kate, Nat, and Chase have given so much of their time in order to make sure that our student representatives are fairly elected. They’ve done an immense amount of work for the Columbia community, and it’s about damn time someone recognized them for it.
Now I want to address something that I personally have noticed in my time at elections board: the culture surrounding elections at Columbia.
I won’t sugarcoat it; I hate it sometimes. I fully understand, personally and politically, how emotionally charged elections can become, because ultimately they’re binary—we have a winner and a loser. But I honestly expected that, as Columbia students, we had more sense and decency than to let elections affect the relationships we’ve made during our time on campus. This year, there seems to be an alarming pivot toward negative campaigning rather than a focus on positive platforms. In all three elections, attacks on personal character were a prevalent issue.
To be clear, I am fully in favor of creating dialogue between candidates, because it leads to better platforms and positions. Voicing alternative solutions brings greater choice to the student body on how we can shape our experience here at Columbia for the better. But recently, campaigning seems as though it is no longer about the content of the election. The only truth is victory, and it must be achieved at any and all cost.
But what’s the point of winning through a scorched-earth strategy? Nobody really wins. Friends are lost, voters are alienated, and all that’s left are awkward moments when you see your opponents around campus after the election. It’s not only the candidates either, but supporters, campus media, and anyone who thinks it’s okay to throw basic empathy out the window just for a way to win. It’s this kind of culture that ends up hurting everyone. Even CEB is not immune. One thing I will never forgive (or forget) is how this kind of culture made two of the most qualified and wonderful people I know step down from CEB.
People often ask me, “Why can’t CEB do more to curb this culture, if it’s so bad?” One reason is that CEB is, first and foremost, an administrative body. Election rules are there to make sure the election is fair and transparent. But it’s up to us students to make sure we have respect in our elections. We need to start putting ourselves in each other’s shoes before we start pointing fingers and yelling bloody murder at every turn.
Why is respect so important? Because at college, the line between public and private isn’t so clear anymore. Most of us live in dorms, and our lives revolve around what happens on campus. The decisions we make in elections aren’t just political—they are social and interpersonal. What you say and do will resonate throughout your years here at Columbia.
So I ask, not as a member of CEB, but as a fellow student, that we rid ourselves of this toxic culture and instead embrace one of understanding and acceptance. We can’t write “be nice to each other or else” into the rules. That’s not how it works. We need to take a hard look within ourselves first and understand that there is so much more to college life than election results.
No matter who wins or who loses, we’re all still here together. We suffer through midterms, finals, essays, problem sets, and whatever else our professors can cook up, together. At the end of the day, we’re all students. If we acknowledge that and understand that we all just want a better, more enriching experience during our time at Columbia, then no one will have to rely on anything other than their conviction and desire for change.
Call me naïve, but I think we can do it.
Charlie Kang is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science and statistics and is the current chair of Columbia Elections Board.
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