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Banking on elections

Can excessive campaign spending put some students at a disadvantage when running for high-profile leadership positions at the University?

As students await the results of this year's University-wide elections for positions in the Honor Committee, Student Council and University Judiciary Committee, Student Council's Diversity Initiatives Committee is currently looking into excessive campaign financing and how it may reverberate into the demographics of student leaders within those organizations.

Proliferation of funds\nThough most candidates spend less than $20 on their campaigns, third-year College student and Honor Committee representative hopeful Adam Michel spent more than $800 on his unsuccessful campaign last year. This year, however, Michel has reduced his spending to about half that amount, bringing it to a total of $466 - still almost four times the amount of money spent by all eight his competitors combined, according to statistics from the University Board of Elections Web site.\nMichel said he has conducted the conventional forms of advertising, such as posting flyers, chalking, creating Facebook groups and updating his Facebook status. Part of his expenses, though, come from his attempts to be more creative and proactive by increasing his personal interactions with students.

"I ordered pens - that's a big part of my campaign," Michel said. "The pens were $300 for 1,000. I've been handing them out. The flyers I've used were somewhere in the neighborhood of $95."

Nevertheless, Michel said his expenses were fairly reasonable.

"I'd like to think that I haven't gone beyond what I needed to," he said. "I'd like to think I've kept it under control."\nIn addition to campaign spending, for example, Michel has reached out to other organizations on Grounds, giving out hand-bills and talking to students face-to-face about prevailing issues surrounding the Honor Committee.

Overall, Michel has concentrated his resources by changing his approach drastically from his previous campaign, he said.

"Last year I don't think I focused as much on flyering and really doing one-on-one interactions," he said. "This year, a big part of my campaign is that when I'm handing out hand-bills, I'm not just handing them out in the library; I introduce myself at the tables, and if they have any questions I give a quick three-minute spiel."

Second-year College student Evan Shields, meanwhile, has spent $78 on his campaign even though he is running uncontested for the position of Student Council's vice president of organizations. He spent about $16 for a domain name and three months of Web hosting, he said. The other $62 was spent on campaign posters because he wanted to reach out to his constituents, allowing them to associate a face to his name.

Shields said he is wary of excessive campaign spending, adding that some of the most successful campaigns have been relatively cost-effective, while high-spending ones often have been ineffective. For example, current Council President John Nelson ran a relatively frugal campaign and still won his election with 320 more first-preference and 208 more second-preference votes than his closest competitor, according to the UBE archives.

"If you look at campaigns going as far back as 2006, some candidates have spent as much as $500 and have lost the race," he said. "It's ridiculous. They're spending too much money and they're not spending it efficiently enough."

To rein in spending\nThe level of spending in elections also could be a factor that discourages otherwise committed student leaders from running for positions, especially if they are from lower socioeconomic brackets, said Carrie Filipetti, co-chair for the Council's Diversity Initiatives Committee.

She and Co-Chair Ishraga Eltahir recently have begun assessing campaign spending and its effect on the demographics of elected student leaders, thus considering whether to propose spending caps for elections.

"The idea that some candidates this election round spent upwards of $500 on their campaigns for non-presidential positions I think is very telling," Filipetti said. "It was very obvious to us that this has the potential to really be viewed as a form of discrimination against individuals who don't have the funds to support a campaign."

At the same time, there are complexities in implementing such restrictions, she said.

"We'd want to create a cap that would both allow students to advertise the way that they want to but also make it feasible for other students who can't really afford it to be able to compete or at least feel like they're able to compete," she said.

Eltahir added that the uncertainty involved in a campaign can discourage many individuals, especially minority students, from investing personal resources in a campaign that might not pan out favorably.

"The process itself is not something a lot of students would want to engage in if they need to dish out a lot of money," Eltahir said. "A lot of the time, if you're asking why there aren't more minorities in student leadership ... [It may be that] people aren't investing their money into things to where [success isn't] guaranteed."

Although many organizations on Grounds conduct demographics surveys to assess their recruitment efforts, they often miss the greater problem of recognizing the lack of minorities in executive positions and the possible financial barriers, Eltahir and Filipetti added.

"You see a lot of organizations that are doing these demographics surveys and they say have minority representation and diverse groups in there, but we don't question why there aren't more minorities in leadership," Eltahir said. "There may be a few, but not to the point where it's something that's acceptable. You don't see that representation in leadership positions, especially positions where elections may be a part of it. It's definitely something worth exploring."

The UBE, however, does not have the legal capacity to impose spending caps, UBE Chair Jennifer Kim said.

"The possibility of placing limits or 'caps' on expenditures was considered in consultation with University legal counsel when the UBE was founded," Kim said. "So while we appreciate the need for elections to be fair and equally accessible, UBE is not permitted to restrict how much a candidate may opt to spend on an election."

Filpetti, however, said University elections have a different dynamic that merits making some exceptions to this rule.

"We understand the ideology ... in terms of spending caps for campaigns in the public sphere in national politics, but we believe that University politics are unique enough to merit intervention on behalf of students with an inability to raise the funds that other students have," she said.

Shields agreed, adding that spending caps would make all candidates have to spend their money more efficiently. He said he can relate to the plight of students with fewer financial resources, who already are either forced to ration their money or discouraged from running altogether.

"I'm also in the same boat," he said. "I come out-of-state and I actually am on ... very heavy financial aid ... Given my current family financial situation, I certainly had to make sure that any money I had to spend on my campaign [was] spent ... in the best way possible."\n\nLeveling the playing field through other means?\nCandidates may have resources of their own for fundraising, but a certain portion of the UBE budget always is allotted to provide campaign grants for interested candidates, Kim said. All candidates are informed of this program during the mandatory candidate information sessions held in January and early February for potential candidates, she added. Applicants are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis and are subject to limited funding.

"The Board certainly does not believe that elected positions should only be accessible to those who can fund extensive campaigns," Kim said. "This is why the UBE offers a campaign grant program."

Depending on the positions they are running for, applicants may be eligible for a $100, $75, $50 or $25 grant. The first tier enables candidates for Council president to request a $100 grant. The $75 grant, meanwhile, is available for candidates for Council's vice president for organizations and vice president for administration, as well as College representatives for Council, the Honor Committee and UJC. Those seeking to be the Engineering School's representatives in the same bodies are eligible for $50 grants, as are candidates positions on Arts & Sciences Council and class councils and Trustees. Finally, $25 grants are available for non-College and non-Engineering representatives in Council, the Honor Committee and UJC, along with the Architecture School, Education School, Engineering School and Nursing Council positions.

Kim noted that the UBE received eight requests for campaign grants this year but added that the awards were given based on the available UBE funds set aside for that purpose.

The UBE's attempts to level the playing field also can be seen in its efforts to increase transparency and accountability.\n"The UBE requires candidates who spend over $15 on their campaigns to report all of their expenditures and donations so that the student body can be aware of how a candidate financed his or her campaign and individual voters can take this into account when making their decision on the ballot," Kim said.

Even if a candidate spends large amounts of money on a campaign, however, he is not guaranteed victory.

"Anecdotally, there does not seem to be a strong correlation between the amount of money a candidate spends on his or her campaign and whether or not the candidate actually wins the election," Kim said.

Regardless of what effect money may have on campaign success, Filipetti said UBE's grants still do not put candidates on equal ground, especially in contested elections where a specific candidate has spent hundreds of dollars. For example, one candidate running for a non-presidential Student Council position has spent $200 on glossy hand-bills alone, in addition to a $60 shipping fee.

Filipetti added, however, that her Committee currently is looking into different avenues to pursue if spending limits are not approved.

"If the UBE is unable to impose a spending cap, maybe we can create our own organization, for example, that serves as an endorsing organization that makes it very clear that ... [specific candidates] agreed to abide by a certain limit of spending," she said.

Kim noted that this avenue is feasible but added that the UBE does not have the authority to officially enforce the agreement.\n"It is ... possible that candidates, in conjunction with organizations electing offices, could agree to not spending more than some amount, [but] the UBE cannot enforce any such expenditure limits, no matter what candidates may agree to outside the official process," Kim said.

Regardless of what her committee ultimately decides, Filipetti said the goal is to create that ideal playing field, one that is truly level for all qualified candidates.

"There are ways to go about it to at least create an environment that's more accommodating toward students who don't have the funds to compete with the five-, six- or seven-hundred dollar spending that some of the candidates do," she said.