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Money has a way of finding its way into politics.
Student politics at Kansas University is no different, but the KU Student Senate recently passed reforms to stopper the flow of money into its election campaigns.
Last week the Senate voted to cap election spending at $1,000 for an election coalition and $100 for an individual write-in candidate during an election cycle. For supporters of reform, the move to cap campaign money was an attempt to make entry into the Student Senate, a body that helps oversee more than $20 million in student fees each year, more accessible for students across campus.
Spending by student coalitions in the past had been yet another point of acrimony in the contentious field of student government politics. Coalitions at KU involve students banding together under a common platform and, with common resources pooled, for the purpose of campaigning. In elections, students vote for the coalitions, much as people vote for parties in parliamentary systems, though the coalition membership is not allowed within the Senate itself.
With a single coalition, KUnited, dominating elections for the past two decades, the existence of coalitions and the money they wield have been the target of reforms this semester. A bid to ban coalitions altogether failed this semester in the Senate, but the body passed other election reforms that restrict when candidates and coalitions can campaign and force coalitions to hold a caucus vote.
By revamping the election and campaign process, the Senate has also been trying to win back the trust and engagement of the student body. Previous elections have provoked complaints about everything from election tampering to vote-buying (with beer) to defamation.
Along with complaints, previous elections have attracted many thousands of dollars to the fight for spots in student government. Current senators say that coalitions have spent more than $10,000 in recent elections. Given the student fee money the Senate oversees, and the fact that KU's student government has helped launch business and political careers — including that of U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who once served as KU student body president — the stakes for student elections at KU are higher than they might seem to outsiders.
Election money is raised privately by coalitions and often comes from the families of candidates. The body tasked with overseeing the election process has a spotty record of tracking the money. KU student vice president Emma Halling said that itemized lists of spending turned over by coalitions to the Senate's election commission have been "constantly falsified" in the past.
Aside from the introduction of a shady element to the election process, senators are concerned about the disenfranchisement of many KU students from student government. "I know that when we do not have caps on how much candidates or coalitions can spend, then it becomes a spending contest," Halling said. "It excludes the vast majority of our student body from even beginning to participate in student politics."
Tyler Childress, a KU student senator who helped author the campaign finance reform bill, echoed the need to make elections more fair. "I think when you have groups of students who are spending upwards of $10,000 in a campaign, that excludes a lot of students who don't have time to fundraise or have family money," Childress said.
In addition to capping the money coalitions can spend, the Senate approved measures to limit what candidates can spend their money on.
Childress said in the past coalitions have offered T-shirts, water bottles, sunglasses and other items that help coalitions brand themselves with the student body, and, because those objects have practical use, can extend campaigning beyond the official election season. The reform bill passed by the Student Senate last week limits purchases to posters, fliers, chalk and campaign buttons — things that have no use to the owner besides political campaigning.
"We're just trying to refocus and make sure the election is actually a way for people to reach out to the constituents who are going to be voting," Childress said.