The ASSU Senate recently imposed a $400 spending cap on class president campaigns in response to big spending from slates during election season. The money spent on the campaigns was, appropriately, seen as ridiculous and prohibitive to some potential candidates, and this spending cap is certainly a good start. But it’s only a start.
First off, it only covers class president slate elections, and while ASSU exec slates’ spending is already capped at $1,000, ASSU Senate campaigns have no constraints. The bill passed apparently tried to limit this but ran into some confusion and abandoned that side of the issue, leaving Senate campaigns a spending free for all.
More interesting though is where we as a student body choose to draw the line between “appropriate” spending levels and prohibitive excess. Campaigns spending hundreds of dollars on free tanks and plastic sunglasses have an advantage simply from name recognition, and not every Stanford student has the means to finance that.
The Daily article regarding the matter reported that the specific cap of $400 tried to balance the requirement for publicity with that excessive cost and quotes Dan Ashton ’14, a member of the new ASSU Senate, as saying that, “The point of the campaign is to get you to actually engage with people one on one, so that you aren’t just buying really extravagant parties or merchandise.”
It seems very hard to strike that balance — what’s prohibitive? How much money does a candidate realistically need to spend on their campaign? There has apparently even been talk in the Senate about providing assistance in campaigns to those on financial aid. You can argue about the number and whatever it is people will spend right up to it (and, let’s be honest, over it — who is really going to audit a student election that thoroughly?), and it will still be a disproportionate burden on less affluent students.
So maybe the extreme solution is the best one — no spending at all. It costs nothing to send out emails to a billion different lists, to publicize on Facebook, to talk to people in dining halls, to stand out in White Plaza and yell at/debate with passers-by about campaign issues. Maybe allow a universal public finance option where everyone gets 100 flyers and a uniform box of chalk courtesy of the ASSU — it would allow campaigns to get the name out — but why does anything more extravagant than that benefit anyone?
Stanford just isn’t that big. A presidential slate of four people could, if they put the effort in, easily speak personally with a huge proportion of the student body. Add in volunteer representatives (a.k.a. friends guilted into making announcements at dorm meetings), and most students could easily be addressed by a campaign, for free. This year 800 votes would have won you a senate seat — the numbers involved simply don’t require anything more than face to face interactions. The point is that the elections could go on without 10,000 more flyers and slate-branded t-shirts. Voters would be just as informed about what really matters — potentially even more informed, if they were forced to base their decisions on actually talking to candidates or their representatives instead of the relative prevalence of each slate’s logo gear on campus. The only reason spending on elections is necessary now is because everyone else does it.
The real question is — what does all the spending actually get us? Yes, everyone needs more frat shades, but beyond that, the student body actually doesn’t really benefit from higher budget campaigns. If you allowed everyone to spend what they wanted, you might be able to claim something about fundraising, but who is really going to give money to someone else to run for student government (other than the campus special interest groups that hardly need more representing). The simple fact is that campaigns will be self financed, which means income disparities present in the student body will matter.
Once you set a budget cap with the intention that everyone is only able to spend up to the cap, effectively everyone will. At that point, success in the election becomes a combination of how creatively can you spend the money, how many people you can actually speak to and (most importantly either way) how many people you know. There is no reason then not to cut the spending altogether. We’ll still have elections, for better or for worse, we will still have presidents and senators and execs and the playing field will be completely leveled.
There’s no downside to seeing just how creative our candidates can be with a hundred fliers and a box of chalk…