Student government elections have become a target for corruption.
Last May, investigative reporter Michael Vasquez revealed how the right-wing organization Turning Point USA poured thousands of dollars into student government elections across the country. Seeking to surreptitiously increase right-wing power on college campuses, Turning Point officials recruited conservative students and financed their campaigns. “Liberals consistently dominate campus student government,” a Turning Point official wrote. “And our goal is to take them out secretly without them knowing what’s coming.”
Although student governments might seem relatively unimportant in the larger political stage, they still have great influence, a fact that Turning Point recognized and exploited. They can shift campus priorities to or from liberal or conservative issues; they often manage sizable budgets and can allocate large amounts of money to implement the policies which they espouse. UT’s student government has a budget of $112,820 for this coming school year – an amount they can use to create significant change on campus. Student government members, once in office, wield significant power.
In light of the corruption infiltrating other campuses and the influence which student government holds, it’s important to ensure that SG members are elected fairly at UT. Simply condemning outside funding – forcing candidates to finance their own campaign – creates new problems and inequalities. In this scenario, some students would spend more money on their campaigns.
This might initially seem like a reflection of passion; perhaps those who most deeply desire to be elected would be willing to sacrifice more money to achieve their goal. However, spending isn’t a perfect approximation of a depth of feeling. Money is much more valuable to some students than to others. If students completely financed their own campaigns, those from more affluent socioeconomic backgrounds would have a shocking advantage. Free to spend a great deal on their campaigns with very little personal sacrifice, their paths to victory would be much smoother. This type of advantage could cause SG to become entirely comprised of rich individuals, an unequal and inadequate representation of UT’s diverse student body.
UT strikes an elegant balance between the tensions of the corruption created by third party financial influence and the inequalities caused by self-funded campaigns. Current election policies dictate that candidates can accept third party donations, thus alleviating some of the financial pressures of the campaign process. However candidates must record all third party contributions, as well as all their campaign expenses. There are spending limits in all elections, ranging from $153 to $511 for different offices, indexed yearly to reflect increases in inflation. These spending limits protect against corruption from third parties – they can’t donate that much money – while equalizing the campaign process for candidates of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
By preventing prosperous students from pouring unlimited amounts of money into elections, this policy levels the playing field.
UT’s election policies are critical in protecting against the corruption influencing campaigns on other campuses. At a time where politicized money and inequality are warping elections on both the collegiate and national level, these type of fair policies must remain a campus priority.
Leake is a business and Plan II freshman from Austin.