Student Government elections can be fiercely competitive, sparking debates about contrasting visions for the future of the University and the role of student leadership. Many of us see the debates, the online drama and the Active Campaign Week booths.
What we don’t see is what goes on behind the scenes and what it really takes to run an SG campaign.
In the most recent SG election, the three tickets spent a combined total of $19,172.70. It’s Time, which took a whopping 71% of the Senate and landed runner-up for the presidency, spent the most at $10,199.65, followed by the winning ticket, Bowman-Milligan, at $6,724.36 and UNITY at $2,248.69.
Almost $20,000 was spent on an election that less than one-fifth of the student body voted in. SG elections are certainly important, but it begs the question: is this really the best use of that money?
Campaigns spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on custom t-shirts, buttons, banners and more. During Active Campaign Week, some SG candidates attempt to capture the attention of students around campus with yard games, food trucks and balloons.
But more concerning than whether SG campaigns are really worth the cash is how that cash is actually raised.
Several troubling findings hide within SG campaign finance reports.
The first is that most campaigns rely on large dollar donations from a few individuals to run their campaigns.
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This was evident in the 2020 REACH campaign, headed by eventual SG President Stone Cox, which spent a total of over $10,159.40 on the road to executive power. Nearly 80% of the funding for this campaign came from just two sources: JJ and Stone Cox.
This was also common practice in the 2021 election season.
Three-fourths of the Bowman-Milligan campaign funding came from just two individuals. Ninety-six percent of the UNITY campaign, which spent only a fraction of that of the other campaigns, was funded by just four people.
The notable exception to this uncomfortable trend was the It’s Time ticket. Despite spending far more than any other campaign, the majority of the money raised came from relatively small dollar donations. The two large single donations received by It’s Time were $1,000 and $700, but this made up only about 17% of the expenditures of the campaign.
While this is still significant, it is clear the It’s Time campaign relied much more heavily on grassroots funding than did the other two campaigns. Interestingly, It’s Time received donations from several key figures in Louisiana politics, including Rep. Mandie Landry, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and Democratic political consultant Richard Carbo.
A campaign finance system that relies heavily on large dollar donations is deeply unhealthy. Students without money to spare for an SG campaign — or without wealthy donor connections — are disadvantaged by the status quo.
It is also concerning that, for many campaigns, financial support from actual students at the University is virtually unnecessary — all that is really needed is hefty donations from a few individuals. Most SG campaigns do not rely on the student body to run, making them less in touch with and accountable to the community.
Until this year, SG campaigns also relied on ticket dues for funding. In order to run on a campaign as a senate or college council candidate, students would have to pay a fee to the ticket. This long-held practice has the potential to exclude low-income students from SG office.
Fortunately, all three tickets discarded this tradition this year; a positive, but not necessarily permanent, step forward.
It is clear that the current SG campaign finance system grants unfair advantages to affluent students and those with wealthy connections. While this is not to say that every SG president is wealthy, it is absolutely true that the wealthier a candidate is, or the more wealth they have access to, the more the system favors them.
The status quo makes it harder for low-income students to seek and be elected to office, making SG less in-tune with the needs of students facing economic hardship, something that is perhaps more concerning now than ever considering the exacerbated struggles brought by the pandemic.
I urge SG to pass comprehensive legislation to address the current faults of its campaign finance system. Such changes could include lowering the spending limit of campaigns, capping large dollar donations and directly banning ticket dues.
The ways in which SG favors those with money and excludes those without it are urgent, moral shortcomings. Student leaders must act now on behalf of the student body they are meant to represent.
Claire Sullivan is an 18-year-old coastal environmental science freshman from Southbury, CT.