The room is abuzz even as the election marches into its fifth hour. With all seats filled, students have taken to sprawling on the floor, raising their placards periodically to vote in the 23rd executive board of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition.
APSC requires a representative from all 23 constituent groups to be present during its election. Most groups distribute one-hour shifts among their executive boards, though even these are subject to extension since elections can last up to seven hours, current APSC Chair and Wharton junior Yen-Yen Gao said. Last semester, elections ran from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m — the previous year, to 3 a.m.
At Penn, a seven-hour club election is hardly unique. The Mask and Wig Club elections can last up to five or six hours depending on the number of candidates running. Elections for the International Affairs Association can take four hours split between two sessions. Different club leaders said they see comprehensive elections as necessary to select the most suitable executive team for the organization and ensure that members feel that their voices are represented. But many also say they understand that protracted, intense elections have repercussions not just on students’ time and energy, but also their emotional well-being.
The duration of APSC elections has grown with an increase in the club’s constituents, Gao said. She added that elections can stretch because “constituents genuinely care about who is on board [and] take the election process very, very seriously.”
Last fall, 10 candidates ran for seven positions on the APSC board. On election day, all candidates have a question and answer session, which can be extended in time if there is a motion to do so. Then, the candidate exits the room for the period of deliberations that can also be extended with a motion.
“Even though it can be time-consuming and tiring, I like our process because everyone gets to say their piece,” Gao said. She added that this is particularly important for a coalition group like APSC that has a range of constituents, from cultural groups such as Penn Taiwanese Society to professional groups like the Wharton China Business Society.
Mask and Wig Chairman and College senior Timothy Bloom had similar feelings about his own group’s process.
“We put in so much work into our shows that our members really want to make sure that they are set up for the most success,” he said.
As the oldest all-male collegiate musical comedy troupe in the United States, members are “very conscious about leaving [the club] better than [they] started,” Bloom said. Even outgoing seniors are deeply invested in elections.
But long elections also have costs, and club leaders are aware of this. IAA Vice President and College senior Marc Petrine said the group has been taking steps to expedite elections by sending out candidates’ statements beforehand rather than having them delivered on election day. The goal is to lessen the burden of elections on students who are already struggling with packed schedules, he said.
“You’re being put in the spotlight,” Gao added. “It’s very mentally taxing.”
APSC has a drop-down system: candidates not elected to the position they originally applied for can choose to apply for the next one being contested. This system is aimed to make the election fair, but can also leave candidates without a position after hours of contesting.
Another issue raised is that club elections at Penn are not just long — they can also get personal. APSC has a strict policy that what is said during deliberations should not leave the room, though this rule is hard to enforce.
The IAA has similar experiences.
“One of our biggest problems is behind the scenes whispering,” Petrine said. “But I don’t really know how you would fix that.”
President of 180 Degrees Consulting and Engineering and Wharton junior Krish Mehta said he thinks intense competition during club elections is linked to Penn’s pre-professional focus. Students go from competing for leadership positions as underclassmen to competing for internships and jobs as upperclassmen.
“In many ways, I think clubs work as the entryway for this entire process of professionalism,” Mehta said.
Chair of Lambda Alliance and College junior Sean Collins agreed. “Some people really view leadership positions as a resume builder, so they are afraid not to have a position like that.”
This competitive process can kick in even before students enter a club. Vigorous club applications can be good practice for the job search, which is even more cutthroat, Mehta said. However, he believes that this should be “moderated” and “done in a healthier way.”
“The first focus of clubs is to find a family on campus,” he said. “Gaining professional experience is valuable but should not be taken so seriously.”
Collins agreed, emphasizing that having a title is not the only way to lead meaningful change.
In Mask and Wig, members who are not elected or appointed to leadership positions can still take ownership over the club’s social activities or tours, Bloom said.
Gao agreed, but added that it can be hard for members to recognize an informal role when clubs occupy such a large part of students’ social and professional lives.
“[Elections] are something that I think a lot of club leaders realize need to be fixed,” she said. “We have to balance having a well-functioning, tight-knit team without being exclusive and adding to all the stress at Penn.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said APSC recently elected its 22nd board, when it was actually its 23rd. The DP regrets the error.
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