When running any sort of campaign, be it political, charitable or even social, canvassing is the most effective way to spread your message. Broadly speaking, canvassing refers to direct outreach to potential supporters of a cause. In political campaigns, canvassing usually entails block walking — knocking on the door of every house on the block to share your message with its residents. For charitable and social campaigns, canvassing involves handing out flyers in public or approaching people on the street to discuss your cause. Canvassing isn’t about bothering people — it’s about disseminating information to the public in a constructive, non-intrusive way. Considering this, it’s vexing that UTD has forbidden practically all forms of canvassing in Student Government elections.
When it comes to political campaigns, canvassing is a critical tool because it enables any candidate or party to directly reach out to the community they hope to represent. For up-and-coming, unestablished candidates, canvassing is the only way to get their name out and connect with potential voters. As a member of Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign, I witnessed the importance of canvassing firsthand. Beto’s campaign strategy was successful because it relied on a grassroots team of canvassing volunteers who knocked on doors, distributed flyers and passed out stickers to potential voters all over Texas. When Beto started his campaign in early 2017, he was little-known outside of El Paso, but by election day, he was a household name. Using the power of canvassing, Beto garnered the support of an impressive 48.3% of Texas voters. Insofar as Beto gave these voters a voice, he showed how important canvassing is to free speech and democracy.
Yet, despite the widespread use — and demonstrated effectiveness — of canvassing, UTD still severely limits students’ ability to do it. In several emails, Student Government candidates were told they were not allowed to actively approach students on campus for election-related purposes. This put several campaigns on hold because they couldn’t approach potential voters, even if they were in public spaces on campus. Essentially, they had to run campaigns without campaigning.
What happens in elections where canvassing is prohibited? Oftentimes, they turn into a popularity contest. Candidates fall back on their friends and pre-existing social ties to garner votes, leaving the majority of potential voters uninformed and unengaged. In the long-run, voter turnout falls, elections become less meritocratic and establishment candidates are given an unfair advantage. Some opponents of canvassing claim that it merely pesters students, but this concern is misguided. Canvassers are careful not to be bothersome because it is counterproductive. Annoyed students are less likely to vote, and if they do vote, it usually won’t be for the candidate that badgered them. If UTD is concerned about campaigns excessively pestering students, they can prohibit campaigns from continuing to nag students after they have already expressed disinterest. These rules are subjective, but determining whether canvassing is restrained or excessive is typically straightforward.
When asked why canvassing is banned, Student Government officials stated that approaching students is “hawking.” I’d argue that hawking is not simply approaching students in public; it should be interpreted as continuing to accost students after they have turned you away, harassing students by following them or yelling at students as they walk around campus. This definition prohibits campaigns from excessively bothering students, but it gives them the latitude to meaningfully reach out to potential voters and inform them about their platform.
How come, when anti-abortion activists are allowed to approach students with graphic images outside the Student Union, and fraternities are licensed to blast music on the Plinth, the university forbids Student Government campaigns from any and all canvassing? In order to make Student Government elections more meaningful and engaging, UTD should enforce its policies with a less all-encompassing definition of “hawking” and permit campaigners to unobtrusively approach students in public spaces on campus.
Thomas Hobohm is an economics sophomore from Dallas.