This academic year, Princeton’s undergraduate student body voted in a series of contentious referenda. While Undergraduate Student Government elections are governed by campaign finance regulations outlined in the USG Elections Handbook, students involved in referendum campaigns are only bound by Princeton’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” as well as New Jersey law. As a result, referenda become an electoral free-for-all during which student advocacy organizations have the ability to spend unlimited funds in support of their causes without listing their donors.
This issue was brought to light after the recent referendum on divestment. During the period leading up to the election, several students noted increasingly expensive and sophisticated campaigning techniques such as targeted Facebook advertising. The Editorial Board calls on the Undergraduate Student Government to institute greater transparency in referendum campaigns by requiring student advocacy organizations that participate to report and publish their donors and total expenditures.
The Board recognizes the impracticability of implementing USG election-style campaign finance restrictions for referenda. USG candidates are given an allowance of $50 that cannot be supplemented using outside funds, which ensures an even playing field. Such a solution would not be applicable to University referenda. Since there are often several groups defending and opposing a referendum topic, imposing a maximum expenditure per side would force USG to decide what organizations are officially supporting and opposing the referendum when allocating the allowance. We believe that this would unfairly silence other organizations that wish to be involved with the referendum and offer different perspectives. Since certain student organizations by their very nature advocate for issues often-related to the subjects of referenda year-round, a spending cap could prevent these organizations from conducting scheduled programming if such programing would cause them to surpass the spending limit. We do not want to prevent organizations such as the Princeton Committee on Palestine or Tigers For Israel from planning events that otherwise would have taken place.
Rather than limiting spending, the Board believes that the best way to improve the referendum process is to increase transparency. Many referendum topics involve controversial issues, and outside advocacy groups may intervene by funding Princeton student advocacy organizations. The student body has an interest in knowing how much money goes into advocacy campaigns related to USG referenda, and from whom this money comes.
The Board calls on USG to require all USG-recognized student organizations involved in referendum campaigns to list their donors and publish expenditures that expressly support one side of a referendum. This would let interested students know how much each side is spending, and where funds are coming from. Organizations would be required to report expenditures to the Chief Elections Manager. As under the current system for USG elections, individual students would be able to report suspected undeclared expenditures to the Chief Elections Manager for review.
In USG elections, candidates are deducted points for campaign finance violations. The Board believes that the point system would be inadequate in the context of a referendum, as referenda are designed to measure popular opinion and it would be unfair to penalize an idea. Rather, the Board trusts that creating public accountability for campaign finance violations would be sufficient to deter rule breaking.
This solution is not perfect, but it is a necessary step towards improving the referendum process. As with all campaign finance regulations, there are loopholes. The University cannot stop outside groups from placing advertisements in University publications, nor is it in a position to prevent expensive advocacy conducted in an individual capacity. That being said, the Board believes that this proposal will increase confidence in the referendum process through much-needed transparency without silencing discourse on campus.
Allison Berger ’18 and Paul Draper ’18 abstained from this editorial.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor and the Editor-In-Chief.