The Cost of Campaigning

Every AMS election candidate running for an executive position is entitled to a certain amount of money to be reimbursed for campaign costs.

It’s more complicated than just getting free money, though. As it turns out, it may be hard to regulate candidate spending — in practice, the cash can buy the posters and the candy, but it can’t buy you the election.

Show me the money

This year, each candidate has a $500 budget limit that they are restricted to, and the AMS will reimburse up to $350 of that for their campaign spending. To get reimbursed, the candidates are expected to present their receipts and budgets to the AMS Elections Committee.

A new rule this year is that if a candidate is running in more than one race, they are allotted a $750 spending limit and can be reimbursed up to $525 of that. This new rule was put into place as a way to curb the concern that in the past, candidates received a $500 budget limit and were able to put up separate posters for the two positions they were running for, therefore doubling their facetime around campus.

“We were thinking of completely getting rid of allowing people to spend twice as much, but we recognize that candidates who are running for two positions might need a little more money, so we came up with the one and a half compromise,” said Max Holmes, the current AMS elections administrator (EA).

According to Louis Retief, AMS VP Finance, the purpose of making funding available to candidates is to be as inclusive as possible in the elections.

“There’s a lot of people who are interested in running for elections but just don’t necessarily have the money to be able to pay for things like posters, lawn signs and Facebook ads,” said Retief. “Any student who wants to run for a position has the opportunity and the funding available for them to run the elections and to get their voice out there to students.”

Retief also said that for the impact that the elections have on the AMS and the campus, the budget for it is relatively small. “Every dollar that we put towards this, this is how we get the best leaders on campus onto the AMS, onto Board [of Governors] and onto Senate.”

For the 2016 elections, the AMS billed out $4,025.57 to reimburse all of the campaigns. This number has been consistently between $3,000 and $4,000 in the past years, and the AMS has budgeted $3,500 for reimbursements this year.

Over-budget and underwhelmed

“If we didn’t have financial restrictions, you could have a situation where people could spend an unlimited amount of money and you may get a situation where only rich people are going to be your executives,” said Holmes.

However, even with these caps in place, is there really anything stopping students from charging their credit cards and sweeping the evidence under the rug?

“When it comes to actually regulating it overall, it is difficult. We do ask for candidates to give us receipts for basically everything that they spent money on and we get to see all of their campaign materials,” said Holmes.

With this method, the Elections Committee reviews the receipts submitted to them by candidates, and can pinpoint whether they do not recognize any of the campaign material displayed by the candidate as accounted for. In the case that campaign material is omitted in the accounting, there are only a few ways for the EA to handle the offense.

“It usually takes the entire elections committee to meet and discuss in order to disqualify someone, so it always depends on the situation,” said Holmes. “If it’s someone’s only campaign violation, even though it is a major campaign violation, we would maybe think about not disqualifying them, but there could be a major punishment.

“Overspending is one of the violations that I would call major violation,” said Holmes. “We’ll question them and then if it turns out that they left them out, they can get punished for that. They can end up losing their reimbursements entirely if they lie at all when it comes to their reimbursement or how much they spent.”

Even in the history of AMS Elections, Holmes can’t recall a recent time where overspending has led to anything more than a slap on the wrist.

“Often the reimbursement is [just] used as a punishment,” said Holmes. “If people do something that the EA thinks is wrong but [is not] going to disqualify them and wants to send a message, they might deduct $50 from their reimbursement limit.”

Disgraced former vice-presidential candidate Alex Kilpatrick shared his thoughts on the regulation of the budget cap, on the single condition that he was referred to in this article as disgraced former vice-presidential candidate Alex Kilpatrick.

“They have these restrictions on how much money you can spend, but they have absolutely no way of enforcing it other than I guess the unwavering moral compass of student politicians,” said Kilpatrick. “If I wanted you to produce a video for me or something, I can write you a cheque for $400 with the memo line, ‘thanks for making me the video,’ I can send you an e-transfer and as long as we both agree to keep tight-lipped about it, there’s nothing the AMS can do.”

Kilpatrick’s dissection of the problems with the budgetary regulation boil down to the lack of real consequences and authority that the EA yields.

“Until they get subpoena power, there’s really very little they can do and they don’t want to tell you that because the AMS likes to believe that they are a paramilitary organization,” said Kilpatrick. “You know the more money you spend, the better result you’re going to get and there’s no way they can control the money you spend — all you’ve gotta do is lie about it.”

Time is money

Kilpatrick noted the direct relationship between a candidate’s spending and their success in the AMS Elections.

“Buying posters costs money, buying social media ads costs money, producing videos costs money,” said Kilpatrick. “The more you can get your name out there, the more likely people are going to click on it because they recognize it.”

AMS President Ava Nasiri agreed with Kilpatrick in the advantage candidates have when they are more financially stable. “I do see it as a gap for students that are facing financial hardship and I think that that is a recommendation that our elections committee will be working on in terms of changing things,” said Nasiri.

“In the first campaign I ever ran, I was running for VP Internal of the AUS. I saw it as a job interview, and you don’t show up to a job interview at a big firm wearing sweatpants and a hoodie — you wear a nice outfit,” said Nasiri. “As you would invest in an outfit for a traditional interview, [for AMS Elections] you are investing in the materials that will allow you and support you in your candidacy for a position that the student body decides whether you deserve it or not.”

Despite these shared sentiments regarding the importance of financial investment in one’s campaign during the AMS Elections, Nasiri also emphasized the content of a candidate’s platform and their conduct as being crucial to election.

“I think it’s about people as opposed to posters or materials. Running a successful campaign could be done with half the amount of posters that we use on campus,” said Nasiri. She then noted that if a candidate were to strictly stick to the total reimbursement limit as opposed to the total spending limit and dedicate their time to “creating those meaningful connections,” they could still have a substantial chance of being successful in the elections.

In her experience of running for AMS president last year, Nasiri noted the campaigning challenges she faced right up until the last day of elections.

“Right up until 5 p.m., I was running around with my shoddy-drawn flyers,” said Nasiri.  “At this point, I had a little bit left in my campaign spending, but I just didn’t have the physical time to go back to the printers and I had already handed out all my flyers.”

Despite these challenges, Nasiri was successful in the 2016 election and essentially said that success really boils down to the relevance of a candidate’s profile, the research they have done and their conduct in relation not only to the UBC community, but also with fellow candidates.

“Your time is free,” said Kilpatrick. “I obviously lost, but a big part of my vote came from people that I met personally. If you don’t think you can personally meet enough people in two weeks to swing that election or have an effect on it, you’re not really trying.” Jenna Omassi, 2015 AMS VP Academic as well as a presidential candidate in last year’s elections, shared Kilpatrick’s sentiment in the importance of face-to-face interaction with the student body.

“The face-to-face campaigning piece doesn’t actually require a lot of resources. It requires a lot of time, but regarding money, not a lot of resources at all,” said Omassi. “You’ll see this again and again. The people who hand out Mini Eggs or lollipops do not necessarily win — it’s the people who spend the time standing on the street corners talking to people.”

Joke candidates have access to the same amount of funding as “real” candidates. Alan Ehrenholz, who ran last year for VP Administration and is running a joke campaign this year as the Cairn, believes that while the hesitation to accept this is fair, he personally sees the benefit and value in joke campaigns.

“I think joke campaigns generally spend a lot less than real candidates and as such, they probably aren’t seeking huge amounts of reimbursement,” said Ehrenholz. He expects that his spending will add up to around $25 to $30 in order to build miniature Cairns.

“It would be a tough line to draw to say something like a joke candidate gets less than a real candidate — how do you really define that? I think it’s something that’s worth it, and it’s something that provides a little bit of an edge and a smile to the elections period. I think it’s something that should continue.”

Indeed, the purpose of reimbursing candidates for their campaign spending is to remove a financial barrier to running for an executive position on the AMS — whether or not the candidate is serious. However, the cost of being a student rep seems to lie more in the time and energy it takes to run a campaign.

“People who have the luxury, who are afforded that luxury of time, have that leg up on the campaigning trails,” said Omassi.