“Aside from the occasional emotional meltdown, I’m having a really good time. I’m learning about all the fun positions out there and all the ways that you can hate somebody. I never knew it was so dynamic, so multifaceted. No one’s ever happy,” said Justin Habashi, third-year political science major.
Habashi was this year’s AMS elections administrator. Within the AMS, it’s known for being one of the most stressful, mentally debilitating positions the society has.
This is not a new development either. That narrative — ‘this is a phenomenal learning opportunity, but it’s also an extremely emotionally destructive job’ — can be heard from past elections staff too.
“Often I say it was one of the best experiences because I learned so much,” said Marjan Hatai, a fifth-year political science major and AMS referendum coordinator in 2014. She was in charge of making sure questions like selling the Whistler lodge and fee restructuring passed.
“The position pushed me to the edge and it was a learning experience. It helped me learn until what point I can push myself,” she said.
The main reason for this stress is that the stakes are high for people who work on the AMS elections. Combined with the little training — and a lot of criticisms — given to people who take on the job, this means that the pressure becomes almost unbearable at times.
“I distinctly remember being in an executive committee meeting and them being like, ‘If this [referendum] doesn’t pass, we might have to shut down the AMS in our 100th year,’” said Hatai. Although she clarified that they were joking, she noted that “the type of pressure that puts on you is not positive.”
Habashi pointed out that in a town of 50,000 people, a county clerk or other permanent official would be in charge of understanding the code and procedures associated with running elections.
“The fact is that I came in, I was handed the code with no transition from last year’s guy or the year before. They said, ‘This is what you’ve got to do this year — you’ve got to understand all the internal structure, you have to understand what we’ve done in past years, what works, what doesn’t,’” he said. “Although I was given ample time, I don’t think I was given ample material. But that’s not the fault of the AMS, it’s just a fault of what this position entails.”
Habashi emphasized that although the AMS archivist, Sheldon Goldfarb, was extremely helpful in providing him with every possible piece of relevant transition material and information on elections possible, the fact was that the body of working knowledge gained by elections administrators in previous years was extremely limited.
This is the most tangible problem that both Habashi and Hatai pointed to as a cause for emotional stress — the lack of transition available. Because elections staff are usually so mentally exhausted after finishing their term, there is often no document the next year’s staff can turn to for advice or guidance.
“Elections administrators normally work 10 to 12 hours a day for these weeks and afterwards they’re completely burnt out and they don’t want to keep working,” said Habashi. “Sometimes they provide transition reports, sometimes you have to track them down.”
Habashi was able to meet with Andrew Lavers, the elections administrator in 2015. His advice? Have a thick skin.
“He warned me of all the horrors that come from people who don’t necessarily approve of every little thing, but you can’t go into it with the mindset that you have to appease everyone because you definitely don’t. You just have to try to get a high voter turnout,” said Habashi.
Hatai described a similar problem.
“I was hired on and told, ‘These are the questions, make them pass. Engage with 50,000 students. You can do it,’” she recalled. “And while I appreciate the faith, I think it would have been helpful if there had been a transition report at the very least, a past referendum coordinator that I could have talked to."
Habashi doesn’t blame Lavers for not writing a transition report, nor does he blame the AMS for the stress associated with the position.
“The AMS and the permanent staff especially have been nothing but gracious and helpful,” he said. “They really want to help me, but the problem is I’m dealing with a lot of unknowns.”
Aaron Bailey, president of the AMS, pointed to this as an issue that transition reports wouldn’t solve. He said that although the president’s position comes with transition reports, none of them said how to deal with a university president quitting, a board falling apart and an exposé on how UBC handles sexual assaults. A transition report might help future elections administrators, but it wouldn’t fix everything.
“I still think you're going to run into things that are unexpected,” said Bailey. “It’s super in-the-moment, problem-solving basis.”
This issue is compounded by the fact that elections staff don’t report to a single person — instead, they’re accountable to AMS Council as a whole.
“The amount of support really falls on the individual who is in the presidency role, for the most part, to work with the people in elections [and] to work in as least a conflicting way as possible,” said Bailey. That would have been him this year, but he was a candidate in the elections himself. He described this situation as “tricky because you can’t really be involved in a pseudo-managerial or support role” due to conflicts of interest.
Although Bailey is “willing to think about how to improve it,” he still believes that running AMS elections is, in its very nature, a stressful job.
“I don’t think elections are going to get less stressful for anyone who’s involved,” he said. “The one thing I would like to solve is how to really give ongoing resources of support during the election period to people who are running things behind the scenes without breaking that conflict.”
Elections staff take a similarly fatalistic view on the sky-high levels of stress that currently are attributed as an inevitable part of the job. Habashi and Bailey pointed to budgetary constraints that rule out the idea of having a permanent elections administrator.
“We need to have an elections administrator and the fact is we run on a tight budget and this is the cheapest way. I sympathize with the AMS because we don’t want to raise people’s fees, but at the same time we don’t want to threaten the mental health and well-being,” said Habashi. “It would be nice to have a permanent staff member to deal with this, but I’m learning a hell of a lot.”
Despite the hit their mental health took during their employment, Habashi and Hatai both ran extremely successful elections and referendums respectively. Habashi administered turnout rates comparable to previous years and Hatai saw the passage of all the referendum questions that year, including selling the AMS Whistler Lodge.
The most immediate solution which Habashi and Hatai believe would help is a more realistic portrayal of what the job entails when searching for the successful applicant. Along with Bailey, they noted that it’s a certain kind of person who is able to function under the intense pressure of the job.
“I think if we don’t advertise this position as a night at the opera and we more advertise it as a monster truck rally — ‘It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be horrible, we’re so sorry’ — if we frame this position towards what it actually is, then … hopefully we get a lot of applications for the position so we can narrow down the person who can take it,” said Habashi. “It’s not the prettiest job, but someone’s got to do it.”