The University Board of Elections should limit student campaign spending

Though he’s no Ed Jenkins — who drained nearly $3,000 into a failed campaign for Student Council president last year — for second-year Engineering student Steven Harris, running to be an Honor Committee representative has proven expensive. Harris, the brother of past Committee Chair Charlie Harris, has already spent more than $400 on his campaign. He’s put the bulk of his funds toward promotional pens, koozies and cups.

Three students are running to be Engineering representatives for the Committee. Two will be elected. One of Harris’ opponents, third-year Colin Leslie, has opted to spend less than $15 on his campaign and is thus exempt from submitting expenditure reports. The other, third-year Robert Harrell, has reported no expenses so far. The University Board of Elections requires candidates to report expenditures within 24 hours.

The UBE does not limit contributions or expenditures for election-related activities. One possible rationale for not imposing a spending limit is that setting a maximum — of, say, $100 — might implicitly encourage candidates to spend up to that limit. Though a spending cap can offset financial pressure by ensuring students do not spend egregious sums on their campaigns, a limit could turn into an expectation.

This hypothetical danger aside, a student campaign spending limit would strengthen the University’s tradition of student self-governance by pushing candidates to rely on merit, not money, to promote themselves. Financial ability should not be a factor in any student race. Big student spenders in University-wide elections have been, as of late, anomalies. But such candidates, if and when they win, increase the financial stakes of student elections. All students should have the opportunity to campaign equally. The UBE should therefore set a spending cap for candidates. It should also find ways to motivate reduced spending.
All qualified students, regardless of financial background, should be able to run for elected leadership positions. A UBE spending limit would support equal access for candidates. This support would be largely symbolic. Most candidates do not spend more than $100 on campaigns, and the majority of funds go toward chalk and flyers. But a spending cap would prevent candidates from funneling intimidating sums into their campaigns. No candidate should be able to dominate a race solely by virtue of money spent.

The motivation behind items like cups and koozies in student elections is unclear. Are such items aimed at promoting one’s platform to those who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of it? Or do they simply deliver the thrill and pride that comes with drinking out of a cup with your name on it? Such promotional items suggest a self-enclosed campaign. Koozies are not a populist medium: you can only give out a finite number, and only to people with whom you’re in physical proximity—your friends, for example. Chalk and flyers, on the other hand, are open to a wider, more random group of students. A spending limit, then, might ensure campaigns are geared more toward widespread information-sharing than insulated self-promotion. This change in tone would be beneficial. More and more campaigning now takes place online, after all, and social media is free.

Spending on ballot referenda, like the honor reforms, does not carry the quality of personal intimidation that might occur in a race for an elected position. Such spending often includes an educational component, such as events in first-year dorms. So while the UBE need not extend a spending cap to referenda proponents, it should work to make spending on referenda more transparent. If we were to learn how much the Honor Committee has spent promoting the Restore the Ideal Act, Harris might seem like a small spender indeed.

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