Last week I attended the 66th annual National Student Congress of the United States Student Association. Obligations to the group kept me from blogging while I was there, but I threw together a few notes on my return, and I’m going to try to write some of them up over the next few days. 

This year one of USSA’s two national officer elections was uncontested, with an incumbent officer standing unopposed for the presidency. The other was fiercely contested, with two prominent members of the Association competing for the vice presidency in an election that pitted major factions and important organizing centers within USSA against each other in a race that would have historic consequences whoever won.

Guess which election was more contentious.

Now guess again.

Every year since I can remember, the vice president of USSA has gone on to the presidency at the end of their one-year term. In an organization in which all officers and staff are typically fresh out of college and in which it’s extremely rare for anyone to stay on salary for more than a couple of years, this progression — a year as vice president, then a year as president — lends structure, predictability, and continuity. Moving up isn’t guaranteed, since you still have to face the membership as a candidate for president, but it’s expected. When folks other than the incumbent veep run for USSA president, it’s almost always in a protest or symbolic campaign.

This year’s vice president, Sophia Zaman, won that office in a closely fought four-way race in 2012. A campus organizer from U-Mass Amherst, Zaman wasn’t universally admired as vice president, and partway through her term rumors began to pop up within USSA that the Association’s president, Tiffany Loftin, was thinking of running for re-election.

Though Loftin declared months ago that she would not be a candidate this summer, some in USSA held out hope that she’d change her mind. At the nominating session at the Congress, though, neither Loftin nor anyone else placed their name in nomination against Zaman. (Loftin was nominated, but she declined.)

With only one candidate standing for the presidency, and that candidate being the incumbent vice president and presumptive president according to USSA tradition, one might think that the drama around the race would have died down at that point. Instead, the opposite happened.

Opponents of Zaman’s presidency continued to quietly discuss mechanisms for moving forward, with a “no confidence” vote emerging as their strategy. This strategy seems to have been based in part on a misreading of the USSA constitution that had given rise to the false belief that if “no confidence” had beaten Zaman in the balloting, Loftin would have automatically continued on as president.

In the end, the opposition to Zaman turned out to be fairly minor — despite the vote-no murmurings she easily won a first-ballot victory. With the election over, the mood of the Congress was (at least to my eyes, and in the opinion of several people I talked to) quickly transformed for the better. The confusion and skullduggery that surrounded the “no confidence” campaigning, however, cast a pall over the first few days of the meeting, for reasons that were as much structural as interpersonal.

An election is a very particular kind of a thing. It’s not a referendum, which is an up-or-down vote on a policy or an idea. It’s a mechanism for choosing a person to hold an office — in this case, an office that could not plausibly be left vacant. In a referendum, you can simply vote “no,” but in an election, if you vote, you’re necessarily voting for someone.

Which is why the “no confidence” campaign was so discombobulating for so many at the Congress — because the students behind the vote no boomlet were trying to achieve a result (installing someone other than Zaman as president) through a mechanism (an uncontested election in which Zaman was the only candidate) that was designed to produce the opposite outcome.

At one point right before the election began, several students on the plenary floor asked myself and my co-chair a series of technical questions about how potential no-confidence votes would be tallied. It took us several minutes to resolve the issue, because such votes are so alien to a typical electoral process. Not only was there nothing providing guidance in the USSA governing documents, Robert’s Rules of Order were silent, too. As I ultimately said from the chair, “a no confidence vote in an officer election just isn’t a thing.”

And there’s a reason for that. Like I noted earlier, an election is a process designed to produce a specific result — filling a position. A vote designed to leave that position vacant is a vote intended to thwart the process. An abstention or a blank ballot (each of which is contemplated in Robert’s) says “I don’t have a preference as to who wins.” A write-in vote says “I’d prefer this person to the declared candidate(s).” But a “no confidence” vote in an election is a vote for paralysis, for limbo.

The negative effects of the no-confidence campaign aren’t just structural, either, and weren’t in this case. With no candidate in the race against Zaman, there was little public discussion of her opponents’ criticisms of her vice presidency, and no opportunity for an open debate about her candidacy for president. The goals of Zaman’s opponents — to put someone else in office, or to send a message about their dissatisfaction — couldn’t be pursued openly, and so they couldn’t be pursued with appropriate clarity and rigor.

In the end, the no-confidence vote didn’t get much traction. As I noted earlier, Zaman won election with no trouble, and I saw little indication of lingering animosity after the vote. But for me, the whole thing served as a reminder of some basic facts of organizing and of process — if you want to contest an election, put up a candidate.

If you don’t, your target, and your focus, shifts from your opponent to the election itself.