ASSU Debates Campaign Finance Reform

Compared to peer institutions, candidates for student body president and vice president at Stanford spend an exorbitant amount of money on campaigns.  The average Stanford executive campaign now runs at an expense of $2,000, but in previous years, candidates spent thousands more.

Many elite institutions create spending limits to prevent out of control expenses during campaigns.  The University of Pennsylvania adheres to a $50 spending limit while universities like the University of California-Berkeley offer a more lenient budget of $1,000. Undergraduate senators agree that Stanford needs a new method for creating equal opportunity in executive elections, yet difficulties arise when struggling to create a concrete plan to solve this issue.

Inspired by spending limits at other institutions, Andy Parker, ASSU Vice President, authored a bill that would place a $2,000 spending cap on executive elections.  In an email, Parker expressed that the cost of an election hinders interested students from participating in campus politics.  “The position of ASSU Executive should be open to anyone who is qualified, regardless of financial status,” stated Parker.

Parker’s proposed bill involves placing a limit on “campaign spending” and the ASSU’s Financial Manager, along with campaign monitors, will supervise election spending and oversee the enforcement process.

This proposition has left many questioning the plan’s constitutionality, as well as wondering how logistical and efficient the bill will be in practice.  In Article 1, Section 3.2, the ASSU Constitution explicitly states, “The Association shall enact no legislation respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

ASSU Senator Shelley Gao ’11 said, “As a legislator, I am very concerned about the possibility of passing a bill that could be unconstitutional.” Parker stated he saw no conflict with the ASSU Constitution, but that a challenge to the Constitutional Council will be submitted if the bill is passed.

In 1999, the Constitutional Council rejected campaign-spending limits in a run-off election because of the ASSU Constitution’s protection of free speech.  Unfortunately, this case does not provide clear guide to the constitutionality of general campaign spending limits.

According to Elections Commissioner Quinn Slack ’11, “[the] constitutional doctrine is unclear…There is not a whole lot of case law behind it.  Because the doctrine is so unclear, we cannot say the constitution prohibits or allows this.”

In addition to the debate over its constitutionality, many worry that Parker’s bill holds logistical and enforcement issues.  Gao worries, “You can never define what [campaign spending] is.”   This bill, if passed, will not be enacted until next year and the current bill continues to evolve in order to correct senators’ concerns.

As a temporary solution, Parker also proposed an increase in public financing, which has the support of the majority of the ASSU Senate.  Public financing would allow candidates to receive up to $1,000 in funding.  The ASSU previously budgeted $4,500 for public funding and this bill simply increases the amount a slate can ask for, not the total amount budgeted to public funding.

Additionally, this money comes directly from the ASSU Executive’s budget, meaning that student funds are unaffected.  Slack believes, “[Public financing] is an existing structure that works,” but he implied that this solution was merely short term.  By lessening out of pocket expenses, Gao argues, “Public financing is just a better option of giving people more opportunities to enter the race.”

Although Gao and Slack point out flaws in Parker’s bill, they acknowledge that campaign spending at Stanford is “crazy” and “absurd.”  Both Gao and Slack believe that the Stanford political scene is in desperate need of a cultural shift and view this shift as better means of achieving equal opportunity in elections.

According to Gao, “Voters need to express their own opinions and to do that we need publications on campus to do a more watchdog style [of reporting].”  Gao hopes that student media will highlight exorbitant spending in executive elections, allowing students to become aware of candidates’ fiscal responsibility.

Slack agrees that a cultural shift is necessary but hopes that the ASSU can “do a better job of telling [the voters] why the ASSU matters.”  The ASSU is anxious to hear student opinions because “students do care about [elections] if they are asked.”  Slack hopes that communication between the ASSU and the student body can be improved.  Slack also encourages prospective candidates to use innovative ideas to limit spending, like “not buy t-shirts and be the ‘shirtless’ campaign.”

Despite a huge disparity in potential solutions, the ASSU clearly recognizes that campaign spending is an issue in need of reform.  “[The ASSU’s] reputation is one filled with scandals,” says Gao.  The ASSU is in need for reform towards more fiscal responsibility, yet it cannot come to a consensus if that reform should stem from.  While some senators hope to enact legislation that limits campaign spending in executive elections, others hope that voters will voice their opinion this coming spring in the executive election.

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