The Cavalier Daily (University of Virginia)
By Managing Board
February 4, 2011
Student Council and the University Board of Elections must push harder to reduce campaign spending in student elections
When Student Council unanimously passed a bill Tuesday night promoting responsible levels of campaign spending in student elections, it signaled institutional recognition of a growing problem at the University. What Council failed to do, however, was provide a solution that will protect the integrity and openness of the democratic process at a school that prides itself on student self-governance. With rising levels of campaign expenditures threatening this core tenet of the University, Council and the University Board of Elections must take stronger action to both dissuade candidates from spending exorbitant sums and encourage students of lesser means to vie for elected leadership positions.
The bill passed by Council is insufficient in both of these respects. Although it establishes suggested levels of spending for the four tiers of elected officer positions, the only enforcement mechanism included in the bill is the creation of a petition that candidates may sign to pledge adherence to the new guidelines. Council President Colin Hood explained the lack of a hard spending cap by saying, “Caps are not constitutional. It’s the same as personal finance rules in Congress.” Yet there are several other steps that Council could have taken to ensure electoral parity.
One would have been to simply improve awareness of the existing UBE campaign grant program by advertising it to members of the University community well in advance of election season. Presently, UBE only informs individuals of the program — which provides need-based grants of $100, $75, $50 or $25 depending on the office being sought — when they attend the mandatory candidate information sessions that are held in late January and early February. This does not address the many students who may be so discouraged by the inflation of campaign costs that they fail to even consider running for office. Council could combat this mindset by working with UBE to distribute information about the campaign grant program across Grounds at the beginning of every semester. That would remove one of the structural barriers that students perceive to be blocking them from pursuing leadership positions.
Even with improved visibility, though, the campaign grant program would not alleviate spending inequality in student elections. “We only have roughly $255 as allotted to us by the Board of Visitors,” UBE Chair Ricky Zein said. Given that fourth-year College student Adam Michel spent more than $800 in his unsuccessful campaign for Honor Committee two years ago and that the target spending level for Council president is $200, according to the group’s own legislation, it is clear that a more robust system of public financing is needed.
One way to structure such a system would be to implement a trigger mechanism wherein UBE would provide financial support to those individuals running in an election in which one candidate spends in excess of a target level. If a candidate for Council president, for example, spent $250 then every other candidate would be provided with $50 to make up for the difference in expected and actual campaign costs. Another grant program based more strictly on personal financial need could be administered to provide all students with enough funds to spend at the given target amount. This system would reduce the incentive for students to spend overwhelming amounts on frivolous items such as glossy posters since they would know that their expenditures would be matched dollar-for-dollar by UBE.
Of course, funding such a system would necessitate increased appropriations from the Board of Visitors as well as the potential enactment of a new student fee. The University must look into such options, however, before campaign costs spiral into the thousands of dollars as they have at other prestigious universities such as Stanford University. The threat is not so much that elections will be bought and sold — as Michel’s fruitless expenditures proved, the highest-spending candidate does not always win — but rather that the foundation of self-governance will crumble as more and more students feel locked out of leadership.