‘Equitability issues’: Campaign finance offers insight into ASUC elections inequity

Infographic of 2022 ASUC Election Party Spending
Mohini Rye/Senior Staff

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Marked by slip ‘n slides, mehndi and condoms, this year’s ASUC elections expenses reveal numerous institutional disparities.

ASUC President and Elevate Cal candidate Chaka Tellem won this year’s presidential election, garnering 4,271 votes from the student body and defeating former candidate Catherine Bauer. With his victory, an ASUC president will serve a second consecutive term for the first time in UC Berkeley’s history.

Giancarlo Fernandez and James Weichert also secured victories, continuing their tenures in ASUC executive positions, alongside incoming External Affairs Vice President Bailey Henderson. The three vice presidents faced little opposition in elections, as each ran unopposed.

While the senate positions were split evenly between the two parties and independents, each group’s finances painted a different picture.

Although both Bauer, who ran with Student Action, and Tellem spent about $445 on their respective bids for ASUC president, Elevate Cal spent nearly twice as much as Student Action in the 2022 ASUC elections cycle. Elevate Cal’s total expenses amounted to $1,387.16, while Student Action’s amounted to $637.68, with Bauer contributing about $450 to that total.

The Bauer campaign was responsible for about 70% of Student Action’s expenditures. Tellem’s campaign, on the other hand, accounted for 32% of Elevate Cal’s expenses, and six other candidates running with the party spent more than $100 on their respective campaigns.

“Current campaign finance laws are meant to address equitability in the elections process but unfortunately have created an environment where candidates are functionally forced to self-fund the majority of their campaigns,” said Oliver Bell, who represented the ASUC in ASUC v. Elevate Cal, in an email.

This election cycle, party finances and website subscriptions came under scrutiny from the ASUC’s Judicial Council. Elevate Cal, one of the ASUC’s two main parties, pleaded guilty in the ASUC v. Elevate Cal case for not reporting over $200 in expenses for their website subscription fee.

Although the violation is a disqualifiable offense under ASUC elections bylaws, Elevate Cal and its members only received one censure after negotiations which will carry over to next year’s election, according to Bell. Accumulation of five total censures results in disqualification from the election.

Equity concerns

Speaking on campaign finance laws, Bell noted a few possible solutions to issues of equity. He suggested allowing candidates to utilize campus resources such as the Open Computing Facility.

“The equitability issues that follow from this could be rectified if the ASUC were to establish a grant or funding mechanism to help fund campaigns for students without the resources to self-fund,” Bell said in an email.

For presidential candidates, ASUC bylaws limit expenditures to $500 and contributions from students and “other persons” at $50 each. Bauer said the $500 limit, while still a significant sum for students, can be restrictive for candidates and their campaigns.

Bauer added that the contribution limits, particularly on who could donate to a campaign, make it harder for candidates to put together $500 or the $750 allotted for party expenses.

She also had to report many materials she borrowed during her campaign, Bauer said, suggesting that eliminating gifts-in-kind rules that regulate physical contributions of goods or services used by campaigns could make elections more equitable.

“If you’re really feeling like you can do it all — t-shirts, hats, stickers — the finance bylaws become a hindrance for students who are trying to run the best campaign possible,” Bauer said.

While Bauer claimed all candidates spent money on campaigning, that was not the case for everyone. Fernandez said the expectation to fund a campaign keeps students who struggle financially from running for ASUC Senate and executive positions.

Because he ran unopposed, Fernandez did not have to spend money on his own campaign. If he had an opponent, Fernandez said he would have thought twice about whether the financial burden was worth it.

He added that the ASUC needs to help level the playing field for students who struggle financially, as he alleged the current system benefits candidates who can afford to spend.

This financial disparity, Fernandez said, contributes to a lack of equitable representation in both the Senate and in executive offices.

“The ASUC or elections council should be able to fund this in some way, so candidates with similar issues as I had don’t have to make a decision of whether or not to run,” Fernandez said. “That’s a huge part to make it more accessible to students from underserved communities.”

Advantages: Incumbency and running unopposed

The 2022 ASUC elections stood out on two accounts: the number of candidates who ran for a second term and the number of candidates who ran unopposed.

Of the five ASUC executive seats, three will be occupied by an incumbent in the 2022-2023 academic year. Additionally, all of the executive candidates — with the exception of Bauer and Tellem, who ran for president — ran unopposed.

For Fernandez, running for a second term proved helpful and mitigated a lot of campaign-related stresses. It also enabled him to help support other candidates, he said.

“I was able to reach out to others and welcome conversations,” Fernandez said. “To run a good campaign, you have to be a soundboard for other candidates too.”

Henderson agreed and said running unopposed made campaigning simpler and enjoyable. He added that his main expenses were on supporting people who helped with his campaign.

Although the 2022 elections were the first time she ran for a position, Bauer said her experience as Tellem’s chief of staff helped her feel well-equipped. While technically any student can run a campaign, Bauer emphasized the need for preparation and research in making a successful bid.

“You can’t just pick up things one day and be spectacular,” Bauer said. “I don’t think it’d be a wise decision to walk into a campaign without research, but if a student is willing to coffee chat, they can run. … There’s all sorts of ways to do it.”

Contact Aditya Katewa and Mallika Seshadri at [email protected].