ASUW presidential candidate Fred Ness shouts campaign slogans in Red Square during a passing period the Thursday before election week. Ness is part of a tradition of independent candidates running for ASUW office; no such candidate has won since 2008. Photo by Lucas Anderson
Fred Ness isn’t your average ASUW presidential candidate.
He attends forums wearing a T-shirt and jeans; his platform includes items about on-campus smoking spots (he wants more of them) and fences (he doesn’t like them); and he can often be found in Red Square or the Quad, holding a homemade sign and talking — or yelling — about his campaign to any passersby who might listen.
But Ness is unorthodox for a different reason: He’s this year’s only independent candidate, running for election free of ticket affiliation. He believes the face-to-face, personal connections he’s making with prospective voters give him a real shot to win.
“I think the personal aspect of my campaigning is doing a really good job,” Ness said. “It’s me, so I think kind of the fact that I’m out there being like, ‘Fred Ness for president’ rather than ‘Vote Husky Impact’ [will help], because who is the Husky Impact? But everyone will know my name, hopefully.”
Recent history, however, suggests otherwise. No non-ticket candidate has won an ASUW election since 2008, when three such candidates won office, including president Anttimo Bennett. Still, even while lacking the advantage of the pooled funding and visibility of tickets and facing increasingly ticket-centric voter behavior, Ness remains unfazed.
“The thing is, I already have 1,000 Facebook friends, so I figure I could get 1,000 votes,” he said. “That puts me at a shot.”
Limits and manpower
Matthew FitzGerald ran independently in last year’s Board of Directors elections, competing in a three-way race for the director of policy and procedure position. He enlisted his brother as a campaign manager, did little advertising, and “didn’t spend a dime” on his campaign. He found it “somewhat shocking” that he still finished with 11.5 percent of the vote.
“The association is structured in a way that independents do actually have a certain appeal — they provide a voice on the [Board of Directors] which is different than the ticket line, and this provides some serious vote-getting if marketed right,” he said in an email.
Even so, FitzGerald, a current ASUW senator, said non-ticket candidates stand “a very real risk” of being outspent or out-campaigned by tickets, whose candidates are permitted to pool their resources and use their individual spending limits collectively on their campaign.
The ASUW implemented campaign-spending limits in 1996 in response to runaway spending in the previous year’s election, where one presidential hopeful spent more than $1,800 on a losing campaign. Last year’s Board of Directors, on a recommendation from the Judicial Committee, debated repealing spending limits entirely but ultimately decided to leave them in place. The current limits are $630 for president, $525 for vice president, and $420 for all other Board of Directors positions.
Ness, a sophomore and prospective computer science major, doesn’t plan to spend any money and questions the effectiveness of spending it on items like campaign T-shirts and buttons.
While the funding discrepancy between his campaign and those of the other tickets doesn’t bother Ness, he did point to the manpower of this year’s two eight-person tickets and one seven-person ticket, which are staffed with dozens of volunteers, as problematic.
“Right now I feel like I’m very busy, constantly running from meeting to meeting,” he said. “If I was on a ticket, I’d have more people to bounce ideas off of constantly; none of my friends are in any sort of student government position, so I don’t want to talk to them about it all the time.”
Kim Chung, who’s running for vice president with presidential candidate Ryan Vogel on their two-person ConnectUW ticket, shares Ness’ sentiment, saying her ticket should be “doing a lot more” to campaign but simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep up with larger tickets.
“Fred’s pretty brave for doing it alone, honestly,” she said. “It takes a very interesting personality type to be able to say, ‘I don’t care,’ and just do it.”
Ness, however, is quick to find positives in his situation.
“Everything I’m doing is for me,” he said. “In that way, I don’t have to split my attention between ‘What am I standing for?’ versus ‘What is my ticket standing for?’; ‘What is my ticket doing today?’ versus ‘What do I need to go do?’”
The Voice, an ASUW elections blog staffed by several experienced current and former members of the association, recently ran an editorial titled, “The trouble with ticket-mindedness.” Penned by William Cavecche, an editor of The Voice and a former chair of the ASUW’s Elections Administration Committee, the article examines the recent tendency toward voting for tickets rather than individual candidates.
“The trend in recent election cycles has been toward tickets, and the past few years have seen changes to the Elections Policies and Procedures (EPP) on how tickets are handled,” Cavecche wrote. He claims candidates like Ness have “become rarer in recent election cycles,” and non-ticket candidates typically lack the strong on-campus presence tickets have.
As a result, Cavecche argues, voters tend to think in terms of tickets rather than candidates, even though the eight candidates on a full ticket aren’t necessarily equally qualified. Vogel, Chung’s ConnectUW running mate, agrees.
“To me at least, in the three years I’ve been [at the UW] so far, the election process seems to be much more commercialized,” he said. “It’s all about the T-shirts, and the colors, and ‘Oh, what ticket are you on?’ The first question I’m asked is, ‘What ticket are you? What color are you?’ not ‘What are you going to do to enrich my life?’ The focus seems to be skewed, unfortunately.”
The current election system has been in place since the early 2000s. A 2000 referendum changed the name of the ASUW’s overseeing body from the Board of Control to the current Board of Directors. Another referendum passed narrowly the following year and professionalized the new board’s structure, changing it from seven at-large positions to six directorships with specific titles and responsibilities, a format that allows tickets to put names with titles.
Even during a ticket-oriented election season, FitzGerald thinks the right non-ticket candidate could win.
“If an independent candidate has the connections, spends the money, and actively seeks the role and brings something to the table that is endorsable, I guarantee they would win over a ticket candidate,” he said.
For his part, Ness claims his campaign is “only going to go up” and hopes to gain insight from an informal group of friends he refers to as his “cabinet.” As next week’s elections near, he remains decidedly optimistic.
“As the weeks go on, I’m going to become better and bigger and better,” he said. “My rallies are going to have more support, and all my friends are going to come out, and everyone’s going to be really happy all the time, and I’m going to turn UW into a shining beacon of light.”
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