Student Government elections happen every year. But what does it take to run?

Chad Lyle

Amie Jean was running late to her own celebration.

Last spring, on her way to find out whether she was elected UT’s next student body vice president, Jean stopped to turn in a scholarship application.

Meanwhile members of her campaign team were anxiously reflecting on the past two weeks, wondering if their hard work had paid off. Jean arrived at the event just after her victory was announced, and she instantly became one of the most influential leaders on campus.

Student Government has existed as an organization at UT since 1902, and executive alliance campaigns — the race to become president and vice president of the student body — have consistently attracted controversy and served as microcosms of political issues at state and national levels.

With thousands of dollars in funding and direct access to administrators, executive alliances wield lots of power over UT’s campus culture. In the weeks leading up to voting, students are bombarded with candidates’ social media posts, and campaign signs are plastered across campus. But rarely do students see what goes on behind the scenes of running a campaign.

THE RUNNING MATE

Running a successful SG campaign starts with selecting the right running mate. Jean was elected alongside Camron Goodman as the first all-Black duo to lead SG. But she said she once doubted two Black students could win an election to represent a majority white student body.

“I’m not going to lie. My freshman year, I thought if I was going to win, my running mate had to be white, and probably a white male,” Jean said. “I know even now, maybe white people are like, ‘I need a running mate that’s of color.’ I think it becomes about details you can point to instead of what it’s actually about — which is student life — when it comes to the nuances of public opinion.”

Jean said ultimately public opinion did not play a large role in her decision to run as a ticket with Goodman. But Sean Tucker, an unsuccessful candidate in this year’s SG election, said public opinion did factor into his decision to ask Suseth Muñoz to be his running mate.

“I wanted to pick somebody that didn’t have all the same identities that I had,” Tucker said. “I was not going to pick somebody that was another white male on campus.”

For Tucker, the decision to include a Latinx woman on the ticket was not about pandering for votes, but rather an effort to allow his campaign to speak about certain issues with a credibility that he himself didn’t completely have, he said.

“I didn’t necessarily want to be the one speaking to these organizations saying ‘Yes, I’m this 6-foot man who’s never had to feel threatened at a party or walking home alone, and let me tell you about what my solution is,’” Tucker said.

THE LAUNCH

According to strict campaigning rules set by the Election Supervisory Board, candidates are only allowed to campaign for a two-week period before voting begins. It has become tradition in recent years for campaigns to “launch” online at midnight on the first day of campaigning.

The social media rollout is the first real chance for campaigns to demonstrate their competence and is considered a vital first impression.

Isabella Fanucci, who campaigned unsuccessfully alongside Elena Ivanova in 2019, said her team pulled their launch together relatively last-minute. While many campaigns start planning their runs as early as fall of the previous year — elections occur in early March — she and Ivanova decided to run a week before the filing deadline, Fanucci said.

Because of this, the pair had to compete with launches of other campaigns that had been planned out months in advance.

“When the clock struck midnight on the day that we were allowed to begin campaigning, we sat in a room together and all of us began reaching out to the entire student body,” Fanucci said in an email. “After that day was over there wasn’t much relief because we were the last to put a horse in the race so to say. We had a long uphill battle ahead of us and it had just begun.”

Jean credits much of what she considers a successful launch by her campaign to an introductory video released on the first day of campaigning that immediately generated positive buzz for her campaign.

“I was like, ‘Wow, we did something here,’” Jean said of the video. “You’ve got ‘Spider-Verse’ vibes, you’ve got Cory Booker vibes.”

THE MONEY

Debates over appropriate uses of campaign funds and the role of money in campaigning are as much an issue in student elections as they are in national politics. In some cases, missteps in this department can prove detrimental to a campaign.

Each executive alliance campaign is only allowed to spend $511 over the course of the race. When campaigns are fined for election rule violations, these fines are deducted from the $511 total.

This year, a campaign that was poised to be one of the race’s major contenders was disqualified for exceeding their budget due to fines. 2020 contenders Connor Alexander and Camille Johnson were initially fined for releasing campaign materials that were not approved by the Election Supervisory Board — a regulation that other campaigns have complained is tedious and overbearing.

Tucker’s campaign was also fined for publishing unapproved campaign material, a stipulation he said prevents campaigns from messaging effectively.

“It is so ridiculous that they can’t give us the autonomy to post what we want,” Tucker said. “That’s not what real presidential elections are like — or anything in politics — so it’s almost like they’re babying us in that sense.”

The fine for releasing unapproved materials amounted to 28% of Alexander and Johnson’s budget. After their team received another fine of 5% for early campaigning, Alexander and Johnson were disqualified for overspending. Alexander did not respond to The Daily Texan’s request for comment.

THE ENDORSEMENT

During every SG election cycle, The Daily Texan editorial board, a body independent of the Texan’s newsroom, endorses the executive alliance it sees as best suited to lead the student body. The endorsement is a significant mile marker in the race and an important source of advertising for whichever campaign receives it.

“Our team came up with the structure of ‘Okay, this is what we’re hoping for, but if we don’t get The Daily Texan endorsement, how are we going to do the advertising that the endorsement was going to do?’” Jean said.

When the editorial board opted to endorse Goodman and Jean’s campaign instead of Fanucci and Ivanova’s in 2019, they incorrectly wrote that neither Fanucci nor Ivanova had held a position within SG before. Fanucci said the aftermath of this mistake was hard to recover from.

“Frankly, when I saw that we did not receive The Daily Texan endorsement that did not upset me,” Fanucci said in an email. “It would have been nice but it wasn’t the end of the world. However, the fact that the editorial board incorrectly stated that we had ‘no substantial student government experience’ made me hit my rock bottom of the campaign.”

Before announcing their endorsement, the Texan’s editorial board organizes and moderates a debate between the candidates. Tucker said his campaign largely saw the debate as a means to earning the editorial board’s endorsement.

“We weren’t trying to sell ourselves to everybody that was in the audience,” Tucker said. “We were trying to sell ourselves to The Daily Texan. Based on how we do in the debate, plus the interviews they gave to us and our website and our platform points — that’s all selling us to (the editorial board) to get their endorsement.”

THE FINISH LINE

Regardless of the impact any particular video or endorsement might have on the race, successful SG campaigns still participate in traditional, face-to-face campaigning. Anagha Kikkeri, incoming student body president, said she spent eight hours on her feet tabling on the last day of voting.

“We went to a lot of spaces that have never ever even remotely interacted with student government,” Kikkeri said. “We went to a lot of organizations that had less than 15 people.”

For an SG campaign to succeed in a process that is often cutthroat, the alliance must skillfully address each hurdle along the way: the tone-setting launch, strict campaign regulations and coveted Daily Texan endorsement — on top of earning enough votes to win.

This year, Kikkeri and running mate Winston Hung emerged victorious. Next year, another group of hopefuls will try their hand.

“We’re students just trying to help other students, and people believed in us to empower us to do this,” Kikkeri said. “It means so much, and I honestly still haven’t wrapped my head around it.”