Vying for votes: CalSERVE uses ‘reserve votes’ to bolster some candidates

Aslesha Kumar/Staff

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Each spring, Sproul Plaza is packed with ASUC candidates vying for the attention of passing students.

The high-stakes election season — where the difference between winning and losing an election can come down to a handful of voters — sees a host of different campaigning tactics, from rigorous “Sprouling” schedules to sending hundreds of rounds of Facebook messages to secure as many votes as possible.

The campus’s historically dominant parties, CalSERVE and Student Action, are organized political bodies that have adopted methodical campaigning strategies.

CalSERVE, which stands for Cal Students for Equal Rights and a Valid Education, runs two types of candidates, “traditional” and “nontraditional.” A traditional candidate represents one of the party’s five core communities: the black, Raza, progressive Asian Pacific Islander, queer and Pilipinx communities. Nontraditional candidates, in contrast, represent communities from outside these core groups.

The party was founded in 1984, when it emerged from a movement to divest university funds from the South African apartheid.

“The idea of CalSERVE is to give opportunities for people that don’t usually get representation within the ASUC,” said current CalSERVE senator Alana Banks.

To help ensure students from core CalSERVE communities will be represented on ASUC senate, the party employs a “reserve voting” strategy through which candidates recruit a number of voters who  place their trust in CalSERVE as a party, beyond individual candidates. Reserve voters are willing to save their vote until the second day of elections to give their vote to the candidates who need them.

Every single candidate is considered for reserve votes, according to CalSERVE’s party co-chair Ismael Contreras. He said CalSERVE’s campaigning strategies have remained relatively consistent all four elections that Contreras has been involved in.

“We’re going to see candidates that don’t need help at all, but others that are in the middle to low side of the spectrum” in terms of the public support they have, Contreras said, adding that the party seeks to support and represent traditional and nontraditional candidates alike.

Last year, reserve votes were largely given to traditional candidates, according to current ASUC senate candidate Alyssa Liu, who formerly worked for the Daily Californian’s business department.

Banks, who received reserve votes last year, ran as a traditional candidate representing the black and queer communities on campus.

“I don’t know why I got the reserve votes — I probably didn’t need them,” said Banks, who won by a relatively large margin. “But those communities for sure need a voice, and CalSERVE makes sure some votes are delegated to them.”

The number of candidates who are supported through reserve votes varies every year, according to Contreras, and the individuals who are selected “will generally be the folks that we know will push the party and the community’s interests forward.”

Contreras said the party convenes a meeting of 20 to 30 active representatives of the core communities who decide where reserve votes — which have totaled up to 300 — will be allocated. The representatives look at the number of votes a candidate independently confirms to measure the candidate’s support base.

Each of the five communities ultimately gets a single vote in this decision.

“When it comes to CalSERVE, their top priority is getting those five communities elected,” said nontraditional senate candidate Chris Yamas, who hopes to represent the transfer student population. They support all of their candidates and give equal time and energy to helping all their candidates but when it comes down to using reserve votes, they put reserve votes where they believe is necessary.”

Some nontraditional candidates have expressed concern with the reserve vote system, according to Liu, who represents the out-of-state and service organization communities.

“There will be comments like, ‘Even if you lose it’s OK because what we’re doing is promoting CalSERVE,’ ” Liu said. “But for me, I’m running to promote my community.”

While Student Action historically runs candidates from Greek, engineering and Jewish communities, it does not officially designate traditional and nontraditional labels.

“We have our core community,” said Student Action party chair Raffi Margossian. “We will always have engineers, and we will always have some Greeks.”

Student Action candidates, like many other senate hopefuls, are expected to be on Sproul ready to campaign from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to Miranda Hernandez, Student Action senate candidate.

By campaigning on Sproul, candidates aim to form connections with students, and try to acquire their contact information to follow up with an email or two explaining their platforms and encouraging students to vote. Mass email or social media outreach strategies  have, in the past, presented the risk of ASUC bylaw violation.

Student Action External Affairs Vice President candidate Andre Luu sent a round of emails to students he knows at UC Berkeley on the first day of voting.

“So I’m going to make this quick and straight to the point,” Luu’s email reads, “but I have a huge favor to ask you. Could you please take 1 minute to vote for me as your next ASUC External Affairs Vice President along with the rest of the Student Action executive slate.”

The email recipients, Luu said, consisted of students he had had conversations with.

“For me, at least, I don’t accept people on Facebook unless I’ve talked to them,” Luu said. “Even if I’m involved in an organization, I wouldn’t send out an email if I didn’t know them.”

Luu explained that going through his Facebook friends was a tedious process, aiming to ensure the people he sent an email to were students he knew. But, “when you go through so many names, there’s room for errors,” Luu said.

Last year, the Elections Council filed eight cases against candidates — including independent, CalSERVE and Student Action candidates — for spamming voters with unsolicited emails or messages. Some forms of unsolicited communication can constitute a minor violation of ASUC bylaws.

“Emailing, Sprouling, using social media, flyering, chalking on the roads as well as addressing classes in person are the most popular strategies I’ve seen,” said ASUC elections prosecutor Zhenrong “Jen” Shi. The risk of these strategies naturally includes spamming, not obtaining proper permissions from the leadership of organizations or professors.”

Every campaign has its own framework, said Holly Wertman, a member of SQUELCH! and former campaign manager for a CalSERVE candidate. Each party has to build its team so that the candidates feel supported, she said, because running — and potential rejection — is a deeply personal experience.

“The biggest value in running with a party and making it as official as it is is to support the candidate’s mental health,” Wertman said.

Contact Sofia Gonzalez-Platas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sgonzalezplatas.

A previous version of this article failed to disclose Alyssa Liu formerly worked for the Daily Californian’s business department.