Why So Serious? How the Joker Won

The Student Government Election started out small. But by the time it was over, it had turned into a huge circus with people waving signs, handing out cookies, displaying videos, writing letters, submitting emergency motions to disclose minutes, and pasting stickers on willing bystanders. But when the dust settled, an unexpected result emerged: the 3L candidate, “the Joker” had won against the two more “serious” tickets. How did this happen?

First a little background: There were three tickets for student government: Shah/Chinsky (the Establishment Ticket), Vargas/Lai (the Insurgency), and Gelfand/Roberts (the Joker.) The Joker campaigned on a promise to fix certain procedural difficulties with the Constitution and after fixing these problems, to resign.

Given that the Joker has promised to resign after completing his mission, I thought it might be helpful to candidates of the other two campaigns to write a little summary of the election and some constructive criticism of their campaigns for when the next election comes along (yes, HLS, the downside of having a candidate who will resign is that soon we must go through the circus again.)

So why did the Joker win?

1. Why so serious? As the election intensified, many people asked, “When did this get so intense?  Why is everyone so worked up?” People want someone who cares, but not too intensely. They recognize that you have to care more than them, and they will tolerate a higher level of interest, as long as it is manageable—sort of like being interested in a quirky hobby. Moderate intensity is permitted, but actual intensity is frowned upon. Both Establishment and Insurgency made this mistake—taking their campaign and the election itself too seriously. The Joker straddled this line well, simply by virtue of running a joke campaign (not too intense) but caring enough (he was running).

2. “What does Student Government do exactly?” This is the key question I heard over and over again. In a student government election, you have to get people to vote—but first you have to educate them about what it actually does. In this situation, the right answer is: we hand out drink tickets at Pub Nights and we provide money to student organizations, which allows them to provide you with free lunches.

In this case, the Establishment Ticket never managed to express that concisely, but they had an easy way to accomplish this. If a student asked, “So, what does Student Government actually do anyway?” they could have responded, “Well, we hand out money to student organizations for lunches and drink tickets at Pub Nights. Have you ever come out to a Pub Night and gotten a free drink?”

At this moment, the student could say, “Yeah, I think I have,” and the Establishment develops a bond with her and could talk about how awesome the events were, how great it was to hand out tickets, etc.

If the student says, “No, I don’t think I have,” the Establishment could immediately respond, “Oh, you’ve got to, they’re fantastic! Next time we have them, come up to me and I’ll make sure you get one of those drink tickets—of course, that’s assuming I make it through this pesky little election thing. Oh, by the way, have you voted yet?”

The Insurgency Ticket lacked this particular advantage but their answer should have been the same: “I would love to hand you a drink ticket if I can get through this pesky election thing. By the way, I think we should reallocate money in large amounts to the better funding of drink tickets.” By not having been in charge of events that occurred, Insurgency Ticket could commiserate with anyone who thinks the events didn’t go well, while promising to adopt those suggestions and hand out more drink tickets.

3.  Know your audience. Neither the Establishment Ticket nor the Insurgency Ticket had their finger on the student pulse. The Establishment Ticket wasn’t able to highlight their successes in putting on events that students enjoyed because they were responding to accusations about all sorts of other things. The Insurgency Ticket was doing a great job of muddying the message of Establishment Ticket, but failed to focus their message to the primary electorate, J.D. Candidates.

See, the head of Insurgency Ticket was an S.J.D., and the passion of an S.J.D. is legal education because that’s the field they are going into. This is great; no one opposes thinking about legal education. But people don’t vote based on it. Insurgency Ticket promised to create a vibrant forum to discuss the future direction of global legal education as it applied to…and by this time, most students had tuned out.

4. An argument that only a lawyer could love. This is where the brilliance of the Joker campaign comes into play. The Joker made an argument that only a lawyer could love: the process is bad. The Joker explained there was a lack of transparency: the Constitution allows the Student Government to do all sorts of things in secret, he as a 3L can run (isn’t that silly?) and all sorts of other things. As students listened, they started to think, “Hmmm, it does seem rather arbitrary and capricious, doesn’t it? Bad process leads to bad substance. I don’t know the first thing about fixing it, but this guy seems to want to just fix the process and move on. I can get behind that!”

5. When at Harvard Law, no one is Above the Law. Obviously the biggest upset in this campaign was making it on Above the Law. The Establishment Ticket, trying to refute the flurry of accusations from the Insurgency Ticket, made the strategic error of responding point-by-point in a lengthy letter. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh man, this has a good chance of making it to ATL.” This was a common refrain from students reading the letter: someone was going to send it in. We knew that ATL is interested in our bathrooms on campus and how the Student Government tries to pick us up when we are down about grades. It was reasonably foreseeable, ATL might be interested in the raucous cacophony happening around us. Once ATL wrote about the election, nicknaming the 3L candidate “the Joker,” presenting him as the least objectionable candidate and creating a poll where he was leading by a large margin, the potential direction of the election changed. (Dear Editors of ATL, I genuflect in your general direction as I write this. Seriously, respect.)

5. Keep it simple and cookies! Both the Establishment Ticket and the Insurgency Ticket made the process too complicated. The Establishment Ticket released a double-sided, single-spaced, 9-inch-font letter to respond to a bunch of accusations in eleven points. Insurgency Ticket made a video and had campaign posters with lots of little words in tiny font. The Joker, by contrast, made a poster that said, “Win. Fix. Resign.” Simple enough.

Finally, the Joker had delicious cookies. These cookies were phenomenal: I watched candidates from both tickets sneak over to grab some cookies. I saw students walk by, look at the cookies and decide, “Well, maybe just one…” Then they had the opportunity to talk to the Joker, realize he was serious (but not too serious), understand the simplicity of his message, become agitated about the arbitrary and capricious nature of the process, hear how the election made it to ATL and decide, “Hey, a vote for this guy is not so silly after all.”

If Student Government elections are about improving the welfare of the student body and we can’t get rid of elections, then maybe our best possible fix is to try and improve the institutional design by ensuring all campaigns bring cookies into the mix—because hey, who doesn’t like cookies?

David Husband is a 2L. 

The views in opinion articles, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.

The Repudiation Election

Well, that was certainly the most entertaining Student Government election I’ve ever witnessed.  Before getting to my main point, I first want to take a second to thank the candidates for running.  I am sure that the last couple days have been very stressful for all involved, but this election was definitely an alembic that generated the highest ever level of interest in Student Government.

Now that I’ve said all the nice stuff, on to the melodramatic insanity of the four day campaign.  I came into class in Austin North on Monday to find a flyer suggesting that former Presidential Candidate Daniel Vargas, S.J.D. Candidate, had poor attendance at Student Government meetings. Not to be outdone, Vargas himself handed me a flyer on my way back from class claiming that his opponent, Rachna Shah, Law ’13, had voted for discriminatory policies.

Claiming that an HLS student voted against diversity is like claiming that a third grader voted against Santa Claus. Having been at HLS for three years, I can say with reasonable certainty that no one here is hot for segregation. Without giving any sort of context regarding what the precise issue at hand was, it’s flat-out bizarre to say someone is against diversity.

As for the attendance canard, that attack called to mind the partisan complaints about how often President Barack Obama goes golfing.  Do we really think someone who went through the trouble of campaigning won’t show up for the job?  Are we to believe that a President Vargas would skip Student Government meetings once he’s seated upon the HLS throne?

I don’t think negative campaigning is always a bad thing. Sometimes an electoral opponent has actually done something wrong that should inform our judgment of his wisdom or character. But the attacks in this Student Government election played to some of the public’s worst stereotypes of HLS students as dissembling mercenaries who lack any sense of decency or common sense. Just ask Above the Law.

To be sure, the election is a victory for President-elect and 3L Matt Gelfand’s reform agenda, and I wish him the best of luck in constitutionally mandating transparency for Student Government (and, er, in choosing who the actual President will be next year). However, I suspect that a good chunk of the student electorate was simply repelled by the spectacle of the two other candidates pettifogging over personal attacks and rebuttals.

John Thorlin is a 3L. His column runs Thursdays.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.

Stay of Election Requested (Updated)

Update (1:29 p.m, March 7, 2012): Student Government elections have proceeded as scheduled.  No sanctions were issued at this morning’s meeting against any candidate.

According to an anonymous source, Student Government earlier today received a request for a stay of the election, which was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m Wednesday. The request was accompanied by a complaint alleging candidates Daniel Vargas, LLM ’06, S.J.D. Candidate, and Judy Lai, Law ’13, violated Section III.1 of the Student Government Election Bylaws, which provides, “Candidates must act in a responsible and ethical manner.” President of Student Government Skyler Cho, in accordance with Section III.2.2 of the Student Government Election Bylaws, stating “As soon as practicable, the President, Vice President, the complainant, and the alleged violators will be invited to meet with the Dean of Students,” invited Presidential Candidate and current Vice President Rachna Shah, Law ’13, and Vargas and their respective running mates to meet with him and Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove at 8:30 a.m Wednesday, the morning voting is presently scheduled to take place.