ASSU Senate campaign spending caps are unnecessary and unjust

Spending caps on ASSU Undergraduate Senate elections are often proposed. Supporters of spending caps argue that the financial burden of a Senate campaign, usually $50-250, is so high that less wealthy students are dissuaded from running for office. They also contend that enacting spending caps would give all students equal access to campaign resources. Both of these claims are false. ASSU Senate spending caps are unnecessary and unjust.

Above some minimum level (to buy flyers), most of a candidate’s success is determined by their personal popularity, in-person campaigning and endorsements. Most people will agree that spending more than $150 on a campaign yields diminishing returns. Spending cap advocates say that even $150 is too high for many students.

Let’s consider that claim in more detail. Senate candidates spend at least 20 hours campaigning, and they’re vying for a job that requires at least 5 unpaid hours per week all of the next year. (Some positions get paid, but they also require a lot more time.) That means they are willing to devote at least 170 hours to Senate for free. Most students don’t have the luxury of being able to work 170 hours for free. Also, if they’re willing to work 170 hours unpaid, then why can’t they spend 10-20 hours working on-campus jobs (or psych studies) to earn $150 for their campaign? A candidate who will work for 170 hours unpaid but can’t afford $150 upfront just lacks foresight, not money.

The other claim is that spending caps equalize students’ abilities to run a campaign. This is clearly false. There are many elements to a successful campaign: time, popularity, charisma, endorsements, support from endorsing groups (such as Students for a Better Stanford or SOCC), and money. If we want to “level the playing field,” why not address all of them? Why not enact a spending cap–on the amount of time students can spend campaigning? Why give popular, charismatic students an advantage over shy students? Why give students with a lighter courseload (who have more time) an advantage over the 20-unit CS student? My answer to these questions is that these concerns are not for government to solve, but advocates of spending caps have no consistent answer to all these.

If you’re an advocate of spending caps, I’ll bet that none of these arguments convinced you. There are two things that should.

One is that enacting spending caps on candidates just means that endorsing groups will have more influence. They can spend freely on candidates, and not even the biggest spending caps advocates have proposed limiting the free speech of third party endorsing groups. Thus spending caps will just give unelected political parties, not students, the real power in the ASSU.

The other: any spending cap must punish candidates who violate it. Usually this means disqualification if the candidate spends more than allowed. But what if, say, a candidate’s opponents bought t-shirts and printed flyers with that candidate’s name on them, and if the spending by that candidate’s enemies would push the candidate over the limit? Do we disqualify the candidate based on the actions of his opponent? How does the candidate prove that it was his opponent? The problem here is that if we make the rules strict enough to disqualify candidates who violate the rules themselves, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the situation where a candidate’s opponent can also disqualify her.

I’m glad that only 3 senators (out of 15) wanted Senate spending caps in any form this year. I hope that common sense prevails in the future.

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