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CONNOLLY: Fund the candidates

The publicly-funded campaign finance model should be applied to University elections

Prior to 2008, major party presidential nominees had customarily agreed to accept $84.1 million from the federal government. Their acceptance was contingent on an agreement, bound by law, not to exceed this figure in campaign spending towards the general election. But Barack Obama’s 2008 announcement that he would forgo federal funding of his presidential campaign reversed this long-standing campaign finance tradition, which dated back to the Watergate era. By declining federal funds, Obama was free to collect far over the customary $84.1 million, setting a new precedent for presidential candidates. In 2012, for instance, both Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney declined federal funding, opting instead to raise gargantuan sums via private fundraising.

The irrelevance of public election funding and spending caps has brought about a corresponding rise in the importance of fundraising for the general election. But at least the option exists for candidates to accept public funds and agree to spending limits, an act that would curb some of the unseemly and massive expenses incurred by recent campaigns.

Unfortunately, no such option exists at the University. As a recent Cavalier Daily article detailed, candidates for Honor Committee fund their campaigns entirely out of their own pockets. As a result, spending by candidates varied wildly. According to the University Board of Elections (UBE) campaign expenditure reports, Honor Committee candidates spent as little as $3.50 and as much as $183.85. This huge discrepancy did not go unnoticed by the candidates. Martese Johnson, a candidate for Honor Committee, pointed out that some students simply have less money to spend than others, and candidate Nick Lee noted that campaign expenditures might put some students at an electoral disadvantage.

“Public funding” would remedy this problem. I propose that the UBE grant funds to each candidate running in a contested election that collects enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. Under this system, candidates would not be obliged to spend all of the funds, and would be required to return all unspent money. This policy would eliminate any fear that self-financed campaigns discourage underprivileged students from seeking office.

Any call for spending increases may be controversial. But only four of the 30 candidates whose campaign spending is reported on the UBE website spent over $100. If the UBE granted each candidate in future elections just $25, it will spend a relatively small amount, and that amount will likely decrease as candidates return unspent funds. I believe it is a price worth paying in order to eliminate notions of barriers impeding underprivileged students from seeking office.

Implementing such a reform would be difficult, but not impossible. It is possible that the UBE might adopt such a policy through a member vote, but students could also work to amend the UBE Constitution through the process outlined in Article VI. I do not know whether the UBE has considered policies to amend University campaign finance regulations or remove barriers for underprivileged students in the past, but I feel confident that the students of this University will act to remove policies they view as unjust.

It is important to note that campaign spending is not the only factor in determining electoral results. The candidate who spent $3.50 on the race won election to the Honor Committee, as did the candidate who spent $183.85. According to the Cavalier Daily article cited above, some candidates felt that spending was somewhat irrelevant, and that establishing a personal connection with voters was the paramount issue in the race. Still others even suggested that campaigning is counterproductive, and that shameless self-promotion might drive away voters.

This may be true. But self-financed campaigns may still discourage underprivileged students from seeking office. This is a shame, particularly where democratic values of student self-governance are constantly emphasized. It is difficult to produce evidence suggesting that underprivileged students are disadvantaged in the University electoral process, as there are few concrete statistics relevant to this idea. Nevertheless, it is necessary to implement this public funding scheme to truly ensure that the University electoral process is fair.

Compared to the recent cuts to AccessUVA, campaign election spending probably seems like an extraordinarily minor issue to underprivileged students who attend this University. But the implication that some opportunities on Grounds might only be available to students of privilege is stunning and sobering. It is possible that campaign finance in University elections is irrelevant. But in order to eliminate any potential that privileged students might stand a better chance of winning election, the University should adopt a public system of campaign funding. At this University, so long a beacon for democracy, elections should be held on a level playing field.

John Connolly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

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