Discouraging participation in the political process

By Scott Tibbs, October 30, 2007

George Will has an excellent column on a ridiculous spending limit in student government elections at the University of Montana at Missoula. As Will reports, UMM limits students to a total of $100 in campaign spending. This is well below the much more reasonable $3000 limit placed on candidates for the Indiana University Student Association.

Will is right to point out the similarities to McCain-Feingold, especially since many politicians want to limit the amount a candidate is allowed to spend in Congressional races. Like it or not, campaigns require money, and limiting the amount of money a candidate can spend limits the ability of a campaign to communicate with voters. This is especially damaging when one candidate has the advantage of incumbency, which is why McCain-Feingold has been called the Incumbent Protection Act.

What is most unjust about the $100 limit is not the limit itself, but the fact that it applies to candidates and not independent expenditures criticizing a candidate. Even if one accepts the argument that this is not a free-speech issue, it is certainly an equal protection issue. How is it just, how is it fair, and how is it legal for UMM to allow a candidate's critics to attack him and severely limit his ability to respond to those attacks?

One advantage to student elections is that it is a learning experience for future involvement in politics. Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan was elected president of IUSA while he was a student at IU. Kruzan went on to serve in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1986 to 2002, eventually becoming Majority Leader in the House. He was elected Mayor in 2003.

Getting involved in student government gives students experience in grassroots campaigning, effectively communicating a message, and identifying what issues are important and resonate with voters. It is not a coincidence that many people involved in student government eventually get involved in local, state or federal campaigns. With voter participation (especially among young people) worse than pathetic, this is something universities should encourage, not discourage. It is a shame that UMM does not see this.