Spending Caps Stop the Arms Race

Illustration by Erin Johnson

Illustration by Erin Johnson
Case Dismissed

On April 20, the New University published an editorial entitled, “Paying to Play: Buying the ASUCI Presidency,” in which the Editorial Board argued for spending caps in ASUCI elections. We stand behind that editorial. Without spending caps, election campaigns have become caught in an arms race, with each candidate forced to spend ridiculous amounts of money in order to remain competitive. This leaves students who don’t have large amounts of funding behind. ASUCI campaigns should be fueled by thoughtful proposals and ideas, not by money.

However, we felt compelled to address the subject once more after receiving a letter from Kyle Holmes, ASUCI’s current administrative affairs vice president. In his letter, which was published in last week’s paper, Holmes cited a lawsuit filed by three UC Irvine students, David Welker, Ian McGrew and Nathan Masters, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

In his letter, Holmes included an excerpt from a James Madison Center press release. The group’s general counsel, James Bopp Jr., represented the students in the suit. The release, dated Nov. 30, 2001, called the decision by Judge Robert Timlin to grant Welker a preliminary injunction an “opinion … [and] sends a message to public universities that regulations teaching our students that American elections are not free, but thoroughly regulated regardless of the impact on the free speech and association rights protected by the United States Constitution will not be tolerated.”

Holmes believes that this case, Welker v. Cicerone, supports his allegation that spending caps are a violation of the candidate’s right to free speech and free assembly. He writes, “The suggestion made by [the New University] is in direct contradiction to this decision and would do nothing more than lead to additional lawsuits in the future.” Furthermore, Holmes alleges that spending caps would be “unconstitutional.”

The New University takes such allegations seriously. So, we decided to take a closer look.

Welker v. Cicerone, the case that led UCI to drop previous spending caps, resulted in nothing more than a preliminary injunction. Yes, UCI was ordered to restore David Welker to his position on the legislative council. Yes, UCI was ordered to expunge Welker’s disqualification from his student record. However, preliminary injunctions are nothing more than orders made in the early stages of lawsuits. In Welker v. Cicerone, all the injunction did was give Welker his position back until a future judgment was made.

On the other hand, in 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that would have heard the Welker case had UCI decided to appeal, upheld student election spending caps at the University of Montana. The University of Montana, unlike UCI, decided to appeal a lower court’s decision to overturn its $100 spending cap, the same amount as the UCI cap. In Flint v. Dennison, the Court dismissed Welker v. Cicerone, saying that its application of Buckley v. Valeo, the 1972 Supreme Court case that ruled money a form of constitutionally protected free speech, was mistaken. Valeo does not apply to school campaigns, even those at public universities.

Unlike Judge Timlin, the Court wrote that in its opinion, “we see the several differences … between the [Associated Students of the University of Montana’s] elections and state and national political elections and therefore have no trouble making such a distinction.”

The Court found that student government is not equivalent to federal and even state and local government. Student government is unique; it exists and operates in a different environment. A university like the University of Montana uses student government “primarily as an educational tool — a means to educate students on principles of representative government, parliamentary procedure, political compromise and leadership.”

Student governments ultimately exist at the discretion of the Regents. They are already regulated in ways that other elections are not. For example, under section XIV of ASUCI Elections Code, candidates must have, among other requirements, a Grade Point Average of at least 2.0. Executive officers must have junior standing. These requirements, though perfectly acceptable and legal in ASUCI elections, would likely be unconstitutional outside of the university setting.

The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal filed by the plaintiff. Thus, the Court’s decision stands and spending caps in student elections are, in fact, not a violation of a candidate’s constitutional free speech and free assembly rights.

The fact is that universities have legitimate reasons for enacting spending limits. That is why many other schools, including UC Berkeley, already have them. Limiting the influence of money in a student election means that, as Judge Carlos T. Bea said, “Students are forced to campaign personally, wearing out their sho[e]-leather rather than wearing out a parent’s – or an activist organization’s – pocketbook.” As long as they apply equally to everyone running, spending caps do not violate the Constitution. UCI should not let the threats of a litigation-happy few, especially when their claims have little grounding in legal case law, prevent us from making the election process better for the vast majority of students.

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