Some bureaucrats-in-training at Texas A&M have revoked the results of the election for student body president over some orange, pink, yellow and purple glowsticks.
Despite winning 35 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race, Robert McIntosh won’t be student body president next year after a student elections official accused his campaign of voter fraud and failing to properly account for a handful of glowsticks seen in a promotional video.
The voter fraud alleged: volunteers from the campaign asked passersby if they could walk and talk with them about voting for McIntosh, which could be construed as intimidating, which could in turn be considered fraud.
Student Election Commissioner Rachel Keathley decided that the anonymous and obviously coordinated complaints were proof of voter fraud, which is defined in student government rules as “anything … deemed to be voting fraud by the Election Commissioner.” Her witness at a hearing was from a rival campaign.
Keathley’s determination was rejected by a student court, but the six members of the court upheld her glowstick charge based on their own inability to comprehend standard written English.
Though the stakes are low here, the incident shines a light on the dangers of campaign finance law and the sort of people who enforce it.
That is, campaign finance law is by necessity vague, and tends to ensnare well-meaning people. Even if you follow the letter of the law, there’s no guarantee that the folks enforcing it will have basic reading comprehension skills.
Instead, they may very well do what student officials did in this case and see if they can’t find some way to stretch definitions well past the breaking point, and then insist that you’ve done something wrong. Just follow the rest of this article down the rabbit hole these mini-bureaucrats dug, and then imagine trying to anticipate these sorts of objections in real-time.
The six student judges here insist they are not being “unreasonably officious.”
“(O)ur decision rests squarely upon the written text of the Regulations,” they say in their formal opinion. This would be true if the phrase “both of the following criteria” meant “either one of the following criteria.”
The rules say that the “Items to be expensed shall include, but not be limited to, items that fit both of the following criteria:
(1) The item would not be purchased but for the candidate’s running for election.
(2) The item cannot be accessed for free by the regular student.”
The court acknowledges that the glowsticks were free. They were left over from some other event, and somebody else had paid for them.
So they don’t fit the first condition, and therefore do not qualify as “items to be expensed” any more than the clothes the students are wearing would, or the cars in the background would.
“Yet, the second criterion failed to apply,” as glowsticks are not free to all, these young judges write, plainly mistaking the both for an either.
Remarkably, one of the judges who joined in that mistake is a computer science major who presumably deals with code every day where the true/false value of one Boolean variable is conditioned on the value of two or more other variables. You need two trues here to get a true for “glowsticks should be expensed,” not a true and a false.
Fortunately for our not unreasonably officious judges, there are two extremely broad passages elsewhere in the rules where the definition for campaign materials is, basically, everything — “Items that have been used in campaigning in any way” and “any items, services or materials used or intended to be used in the course of campaigning or preparing for a campaign.” Your haircut, your iPhone, your outfit, the chair where you first had the idea — all theoretically reportable.
State regulations in this area are slightly better, but not much. These laws always create vast gray areas that disincentivize participation in politics while transferring power to incumbents.
Yet another definition for campaign materials in the rules is “anything distributed or displayed for the purpose of soliciting votes for a candidate.” The video, it’s worth noting, doesn’t include any actual soliciting of votes. But that “distributed or displayed” language is the sort that a grown-up court might seize on in constructing a workable standard.
The only place those glowsticks were displayed is in an online video, so the only potential violation is if online displays are regulated.
The rules state that “(t)he Election Commission shall not regulate an activity that takes place over the Internet.” Case should be closed, yet again.
However, there’s an exception for “evidence found on the internet of physical campaign violations.” So the judges smoked some weed, apparently, and pondered how everything is really physical if you think about it, man.
The rule, then, that the judges arrived at is that every candidate must make a fair market estimate of anything of any physicality used in any way in a campaign, and fill out the forms correctly. Got something you want to fight for? Great, but first tell me how much you think somebody would give you for those socks.
Needless to say, the standard hasn’t been imposed on anyone else. Yet.
Jon Cassidy reports for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jpcassidy000.