For the first time in the history of the University Student Government (USG), elections will be held entirely online. With this shift comes a plethora of changes with how candidates and political parties will mount their campaigns.
Unlike past election seasons, this General Elections, officially called the Make-up Elections 2021, will not have large crowds clad in red and yellow making rounds in classrooms to bear their platforms. Instead, student leaders are finding themselves breaking new ground in a digital landscape, while also mitigating age-old concerns from student voters.
A less costly digital approach
With quarantine restrictions barring physical activities, large expenses incurred from printing plans of action and tarpaulins are no longer of concern. Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista (Tapat) President Martha Delos Santos reveals that in previous elections, candidates would each pay a non-mandatory fee of no more than P5,000 to help shoulder campaign costs, as the party does not have funds specifically allocated for elections nor does it have sponsors to help ease the burden.
Recently, the fee has become “many more times cheaper,” she highlights, with costs being limited to sponsored ads on social media. On the other hand, Santugon sa Tawag ng Panahon (Santugon) Outer Core President Kylie Robles divulges that their campaign and budget plans are “still in the works” and that nothing has been finalized as of writing.
DLSU Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairperson John Christian Ababan explains that as per their memorandum of agreement, political parties may purchase up to three paid ads per social media platform for this election.
Beyond paid content, political parties plan to maximize their own personal social media platforms. Robles shares that they will utilize both their party’s and their members’ accounts for campaigning in order to communicate their group’s visions and plans of action.
Tapat Executive Secretary Brian Anupol, meanwhile, bares plans to employ a variety of online publicity materials, ranging from GIFs to short video clips. The party is also considering sharing campaign materials through group chats and private messages, as well as utilizing AnimoSpace for announcements, Delos Santos notes.
Room-to-room campaigns, which normally gives candidates the opportunity to directly discuss their platforms with student voters, will instead be replaced by pre-recorded speeches, Anupol adds, while students may raise their questions in a yet-to-be announced livestream over Zoom and Facebook.
Recurring voter harassment concerns
Past elections have seen voter harassment as a recurring complaint among student voters. Rica Ortiz (III, AB-ISJ), who is not a member of either political party, recalls how candidates from one political organization made her feel uncomfortable after urging her to vote and even making her go to the voting booth while walking her along the way.
She narrates that in another incident, this time with another political party, members started messaging her, asking who her coursemates voted for. “They asked me to ask [my coursemates] which is ridiculous because they are breaching the privacy of the voters to know [whether] their candidate is winning or not.”
The Online Election Code defines voter harassment as an incident where a candidate obstructs a voter’s freedom of choice through “intimidation, verbal abuse, [and] physical or mental abuse.”
But party leaders and DLSU Comelec all acknowledge that these incidents can still happen online. Ababan mentions that this may take the form of private messages, which makes it more challenging to detect and depends on voters reporting the incident.
However, he discloses that most complaints in the past were “party versus party” cases—nonpartisan voters rarely opt to undergo the process. “Meron kasi mga students na may friend sila from that party, and if they file a complaint against the party…baka awayin siya ng friends niya,” he furthers.
(Some students may have friends in a party, and if they file a complaint against the party…they might come into conflict with their friends.)
Curbing voter harassment
Despite students being unwilling to come forward to file complaints, DLSU Comelec continues to make the option available even in an online setting. Legislators approved revisions to the rules of court last December 19, allowing students to file their complaints online. Ababan also cites amendments that give more leeway to properly process cases. The Comelec Board, a body composed of all Comelec commissioners, is given a maximum of nine school days starting from the receipt of the complaint to resolve electoral cases. Special hearings during non-school days may also be held.
He maintains, however, that the onus is still on the students to file complaints on voter harassment and other infractions committed by candidates and the political parties for the commission to proceed with the case.
Delos Santos assures that Tapat’s members and candidates are regularly oriented on the ethics and limits of campaigning. “It’s all about [the] manner of delivery and knowing when the people that they are talking to have become uncomfortable with their presence,” she furthers.
The responsibility of ensuring that candidates do not cross boundaries falls on the party itself, she reasons, as doing so “not only reflects badly on individual candidates but [also on] the party in general.”
At the same time, Robles reiterates that Santugon will not tolerate online voter harassment, saying it goes against their desire for a “healthy, fair, and honest election.”
For the student body
For the past few years, voter turnout has been middling, barely crossing the 50 percent plus one minimum requirement. Getting students to vote online will still be a challenge, Ababan admits. DLSU Comelec had previously conducted room-to-room information campaigns in Special Elections 2019, which saw one of the highest turnouts in years, and they plan to do something similar for the online elections through Help Desk Announcements and AnimoSpace.
“[DLSU] Comelec is there not to coerce them to participate but to encourage them why their vote counts, why [it’s] important for them to participate in the election,” he says.
Delos Santos believes that older batches vote less because they lose trust in the USG and grow “annoyed by how candidates communicate their platforms.” To convince the student body to still exercise their right to vote, both political parties must make it clear that “all the efforts of student leaders are for the best interests of whom they are serving,” Robles reasons.
While DLSU Comelec and the political parties are behind organizing the elections, it is ultimately the student body who makes the crucial choices. For EDGE2019 Batch Vice President Isabella Lardizabal, the elections ensure that the USG “is led by capable and aspiring leaders that can help create a positive impact despite the current situation we are in.”
“The entire campaign is for [the student body] and them alone. It’s not for Tapat; it’s not for Santugon,” Delos Santos emphasizes, hoping that through their efforts, students “realize that the USG is how we communicate with the administration…in order to maximize our education within the University.”