Campaign Spending Limits: The Wrong Answer

The ASSU Senate has once again tried — and failed — to implement spending caps in Senate elections. The fact that only three of fifteen Senators voted in favor of the spending-limit measure is an incredibly welcome sign that student politicians are beginning to take a more nuanced, rational look at an issue that is often clouded by emotion.

Supporters of spending caps in ASSU elections often argue that the cost of running a Senate campaign deters low-income students from seeking political office on campus. The ASSU should include and represent all student voices, and an elections policy that essentially prevents low-income students from the Senate is an unacceptable form of de facto discrimination. Spending caps, in this view, will “level the playing field” and allow low-income students to compete without being blatantly outspent by more privileged candidates.

Concern for low-income and first-generation college students is, of course, quite admirable, and supporters of spending caps should be commended for their dedication to making the ASSU more representative of the student body. But the push to implement spending limits ignores several unfortunate practical realities that would make such a policy unworkable and counterproductive.

First, the enforcement of spending caps will simply transfer more power and influence to endorsing groups, which (under past proposals) are not subject to any monetary limits on their political activities. Coalitions & political parties would become the real power behind Senate candidates, who would simply appeal to endorsing groups like SOCC or the Women’s Coalition for advertising support. If we really want the ASSU Senate to represent the student body, and not a few committed political activists, then we ought to avoid inadvertently boosting the clout of endorsing groups.

Second, and more importantly, it would be next to impossible to hold candidates accountable for improper spending. I’m not inclined to rely on the Fundamental Standard to solve this problem. Past Senate campaigns have shown that candidates are quite willing to bend elections-related rules in pursuit of office. Last year, for example, two candidates who had pledged to forgo the use of new paper in their campaigns were found to have intentionally printed dozens of one-sided copies of the health care reform bill so that they could claim to be printing their fliers on “pre-used” paper. Prospective Senators have also violated canvassing rules by going door-to-door in graduate residences. Under any spending cap system, candidates could — and probably would — hide or disguise their expenditures

What’s worse, any policy that punished students who violated the spending cap would be subject to abuse by unscrupulous rival candidates. Candidate A could easily disqualify Candidate B by printing up a mess of flyers and T-shirts with Candidate A’s name on them, and then reporting Candidate A to the Elections Commission for blatant overspending. Any spending cap policy would simply put honest candidates at a disadvantage.

Finally, spending caps are rapidly becoming a solution in search of a problem. E-flyering, well-designed websites, and Facebook publicity are coming to dominate elections publicity. I know plenty of CS majors who would code a simple website for $50 or less, and email and Facebook spam are completely free. And perhaps the most effective means of publicity — personal networking and door-to-door canvassing — cost nothing but time. I’m fairly confident that the “cost barrier” to campaigning will quickly cease to exist, if it hasn’t already.

I hope that future Senates will avoid implementing a spending-caps system that will do more harm than good. Free and open political speech is a wonderful thing, and its persistence in campus politics depends on the Senate’s willingness to stay out of elections finance.

Author’s Note: This op-ed is based on a post by Quinn Slack that originally appeared on Fiat Lux, The Review’s blog.

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