Many students have seen the brightly painted signs proclaiming the candidates for president/vice president of the Associated Student of CSU on the Lory Student Center Plaza, but few students think about the money involved in the two-and-a-half-week-long campaigns.
Upperclassmen are accustomed to offers of candy, brochures, t-shirts, plastic leis, pens and other trinkets as incentives to vote in the upcoming general elections for student government to be held April 4 through April 6. In years past, candidates spent as much as $10,000, said Jon Muller, one of two candidates for vice president.
Muller is currently a senior senator for the College of Liberal Arts.
With the average student in mind, ASCSU has spent the past three years creating and then lowering a campaign-spending limit for president/vice president candidates. Three years ago, a $3,500 spending limit was introduced, although donations and discounts that campaigns received were only assessed at a quarter of their value. The senate hoped this exception would encourage candidates to fundraise instead of paying out-of-pocket, said Elections Manager Brian Hardouin.
At first, the donations/discounts exemptions seemed like a great idea – one candidate even convinced Cold Stone Creamery to sponsor their campaign, said Cord Brundage, presidential candidate from the 2003 elections.
But abuses of the rule, which theoretically allowed $14,000 spending, caused the senate to close the donation exemption, but forgot the discount exemption. The following year, candidates continued to abuse the discount exemption, so the senate closed that too.
"Companies were saying, 'Yeah, we'll be happy to donate to you,' and the campaigns were saying 'No! Give us a ninety-nine percent discount,'" Hardouin said.
And finally, this February, the senate voted to lower the spending cap to $2,000. Responses have been mixed.
"We really wanted the money to do something creative," said Chris Hutchins, presidential candidate.
Hutchins, a junior marketing major, explained that there are certain things each candidate is expected to buy – signs, brochures, T-shirts and candy. This leaves little left in a $2,000 budget to shake things up. Hutchins also pointed out that he and his running mate, Nicholette Andrews, a junior speech major, have fundraised to get their $2,000 not spending much personal money on the campaign. He believes that since fundraising options are available for all students, keeping the limit at $3,000 would still be fair.
"If someone's going to be the leader of 25,000 people, they should be able to raise $3,000," he said.
But Courtney Stephens, the only other presidential candidate, supports the $2,000 limit and said she would like to see it lower still if she is elected.
"I think it's good that it went down," said Stephens, a senior political science major. "It hinders the ability of students who aren't well-financed to run for office."
Spending Adds Up
Two thousand sounds like a lot of money, but it is easy to spend if you have it: Stephens and Muller have spent nearly $800 so far and Hutchins and Andrews almost $1,300. Both candidates agree that T-shirts – $300 for Stephens, $500 for Hutchins – and printing (brochures, yard signs and posters) are major expenses, as are supplies for the large Plaza signs. But incidental expenses add up fast, and candidates have to be careful – exceeding the $2,000 limit means automatic expulsion.
Both camps are budgeting their finances carefully, an uncertain science given the possibility of fines from the Elections Committee for anyone violating a variety of campaign rules. Fines can range as high as $100, but so far neither Stephens nor Hutchins has received more than $5 violations (Stephens has two, Hutchins only one).
Fine sizes depend on the severity of the offense and how close to the election days it is administered, Hardouin explained. So far, Stephens has received a fine for illegally posted flyers and Hutchins for the inappropriate use of RamRide to endorse his ticket, a situation he said was misunderstood.
One of Hutchins' fraternity brothers volunteered for the safe ride program in the weeks before Spring Break and answered RamRide phones with various quotes from the popular movie "Napoleon Dynamite." Among them was "Vote for Pedro," a catchphrase that Hutchins and Andrews later adopted.
The volunteer was unaware of Hutchins' slogan, he said, and so the Elections Committee settled on a fine of $5, despite the volunteer's repeated use of the phrase. Hutchins said he was pleased that the committee was understanding of accidents and focused on mitigating circumstances.
"I'm really pleased that the committee is looking at such things," he said.
Hardouin warned the senate when it voted to lower spending limits that doing so without also adjusting fine rates could be problematic. So far, with only $15 confiscated from the two campaigns, neither is particularly worried.
"We budgeted for (fines)," Stephens said.
Hutchins said he was not worried that fines would significantly impact his budget either.
Surprisingly, this is not the only thing the candidates agree on. After last year's memorable and sometimes fierce campaign, students may be surprised to know that the two camps agreed to certain ground rules before the campaign. At an Elections Committee hearing Thursday night, Hutchins and Erik Healey, Stephens' representative to the committee, spoke softly and laughed together as the committee discussed rulings.
"I'm really glad to see that the candidates are seeing, really, eye-to-eye," Hutchins said.