Inside Student Government funding, bylaw infringements and alleged campaign violations this cycle

The sun shines on the Memorial Union after a thunderstorm Wednesday afternoon on Nov. 11, 2015. 

Alex Connor

Table of contents:

Part 1: Overview of campaign funding rules

Part 2: Using a student organization for the campaign 

Part 3: 2017-2018 Senate seat apportionments

Part 4: Petition alleging Tillo-Barnes campaign violations

Part 5: Overview of penalties for campaign violations

Overview of campaign funding rules

As the Student Government presidential and senate elections loom closer, candidates are making last-ditch efforts to spread their voice, platform and oftentimes buttons to students across campus.

Typically in a Student Government election, candidates are likely to chalk across campus, pass out buttons with names and faces on them, run social media accounts and set up a website depicting their platforms. On top of that, some candidates pass out candy or host meet-the-candidate events.

All of this can equate to a large sum of money.

To prevent this, the Student Government election code puts a cap on spending: $3,000. In addition, only $1,250 of that money can be paid for by “personal, out of pocket” expenditures.

The $3,000 includes donations and tangible in-kind support. All donations and in-kind support must be documented with a signature from the providing entity, according to the Election Code.

Donations could be from Iowa State alumni, former employers, family, etc.

The Election Commission will reimburse all established presidential and vice presidential candidates for up to 50 percent of their expenses, up to the personal expenditures spending limit which is $1,250, per executive slate, according to Election Code. 

“The campaigns, assuming they are on the ballot and everything, they’re eligible to get a reimbursement,” said Michael Snook, Student Government finance director.

This means that a candidate, should they meet the requirements, could be reimbursed for $1,250 regardless of whether they put forth personal expenditures or if it was all just outside donations. 

All reimbursements are subject to the verification of financial reporting and compliance with Government law, according to Election Code, and only criterion expenses – such as advertisements, web space for campaign purposes, office supplies, etc. – shall be eligible for reimbursement.

Per the Student Government fiscal year 2017 budget, $4,000 was allocated toward campaign reimbursements. These reimbursements were not budgeted for the fiscal year 2016 budget, and in fiscal year 2015, $1,250 was budgeted.

For the fiscal year 2018 budget, which has yet to be approved by Student Government, $2,500 has been requested to allocate for campaign reimbursements.

Iowa State students pay a student activity fee of $36.75 per semester, according to the Student Government website, which generates more than $2.3 million in revenue. This amount is then distributed to other student organizations and services across campus, including the campaign reimbursements for personal expenditures.

According to the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, Student Government is requesting $120,856.19 in total expenses to be allocated toward its budget.

Snook said the reason the candidates are reimbursed is to make running for president and vice president more accessible to students.

“To reduce the barriers for individuals wishing to run for Student Government president or vice president, if they have to come up with a thousand dollars in out-pocket-expenses, that could make it so some students wouldn’t have the resources to launch a bid,” Snook said.

Both presidential candidates Cody West and Conner Tillo said they feel that the $3,000 spending cap is more than enough. The cap last year maxed out at $5,000.

West, who ran for vice president last year, said that even the $3,000 spending cap is “incredibly too much.”

“That’s everything,” West said, providing an example. “If you use camera equipment, or have a camera company come help film for you, their time, their labor or whatever that would cost, if they weren’t donating it, [it] would be assessed to your total.” 

Tillo said he felt the $3,000 cap makes campaigning easier for students. It’s more affordable.

“We’re students here. It was rough when it came to funding,” said Tillo, who was able to raise funds largely through help from family members.

West, however, said he made it a point this year and last to never ask for family money, adding that he and Smith didn’t use any personal expenditures – aside from the money that had to be put forth for their website.

“If you spend your personal money and if the Student Government elections were funded by personal money, you really are appealing to a small number of students who would have the resources for that,” West said.

This is a sentiment Tillo backed.

For write-in candidates Anthony Chavez and Emeline Hanscel, who are ineligible to be officially recognized as candidates, the two are paying completely out of pocket for their campaign. As per election code, they are not eligible for campaign reimbursements. Should they win, however, they are still required to submit a final revenues and expenses disclosure form ahead of receiving the office for which they are running.

And even though the expenditure limit exists, the candidates might not always make note of their funds to the Election Commission – a campaign violation.

This is a thought that West said he fears.

“It really does scare me that there’s no possible way to see if someone spent, I’m just going to throw out a wild number, $10,000 on a Student Government election,” he said. “There’s no way to actually hold students accountable if their personal expenditures are not being reimbursed for that.

“That’s something I haven’t really delved that far into, but it’s kind of a scary thought, honestly.”

Using a student organization for the campaign

More often than not, at least in recent years, the funding for Student Government campaigns is funneled through a student organization.

Where it stands, presidential and vice presidential candidates Cody West and Cody Smith lead Change ISU. Presidential and vice presidential candidates Conner Tillo and Rachael Barnes are chairs for Students for a Democratic Student Government.

The purpose of these individual organizations is the same, but their descriptions vary. The history of the organizations, at least recognized by current Student Government officials, dates back to 2014.

Khayree Fitten, a former presidential candidate, used Students for Khayree Fitten for his organization. From there, the names evolved to be more fitting for each candidate. Some organizations were even handed down.

“For us, once an org gets recognized … it basically is theirs to manage unless there is some overarching concern that [is] brought to our attention,” said George Micalone, director of student activities and assistant director of the Memorial Union.

However, Micalone said, a student organization that wishes to change its name or description must have permission from the Student Activities Center.

“It doesn’t mean that you can’t operate differently than what you’re called,” Micalone said.

For Change ISU, it says the organization hopes to “educate and unite leaders from across campus and on the most important issues facing our country. We seek to improve the university through governmental advocacy at the local, state and federal level.”

For Students for a Democratic Student Government, it says the organization serves to “spread democracy across campus and advocate for democratic candidates during the 2017 Student Government elections.”

The description continues: “The organization will vote on candidates to endorse based on the candidate’s merit, experience and vision for the student body. Upon endorsing a candidate, the organization will then commit any and all resources to helping the candidate get elected.”

West currently serves as the president of Change ISU. His running mate, Smith, is currently “the MemeLord.”

For Students for a Democratic Student Government, the Tillo-Barnes campaign manager Weston Elias serves as president. Tillo serves as a chairman and Barnes as vice chairman.

“All Iowa State students in good standing with the university” can join the organizations. However, according to the organization information, Change ISU currently has 11 student members, and Students for a Democratic Student Government has nine student members and two ISU members.

Tillo said he was given control of his student organization by Dan Breitbarth’s campaign team. Breitbarth served as the Student Government president during the 2015-16 academic year.

Tillo said that he forgot about the organization for a while, but proceeded to hand over the organization to his campaign manager in October 2016.

For West, he was handed over his student organization this December after he made the decision that he wanted to run.

“I was already on the student organization from last year, and Cole [Staudt] made me an admin and then disaffiliated with it,” West said.

The benefits of the Student Government candidates in using registered Iowa State organizations can include the establishment of an account with the campus organizations accounting office and the eligibility for free use of campus meeting facilities.

The two student organizations could also request funding from the Student Government’s fee allocations as it meets the eligibility requirements as listed by the Student Government webpage.

“It’s independent of Student Government in that they’re their own organization in the same sense that Ski and Snowboard is their own organization,” said Michael Snook, campaign finance director.

For candidates outside of Student Government, the ability to use a student organization may not be known because it is not something announced during informational sessions.

Micalone said depending on timing, a student organization could take as little as a couple weeks to become recognized or as long as a couple months.

“Really, you could get it done in a couple weeks if you get all your stuff in and then your timing is before our recognition board meeting, you can kind of slide through the process,” he said.

Chavez and Hanscel said they knew about the student organizations but are not using one. The two entered their bid for president and vice president roughly a week after the campaign season started.

2017-2018 Senate seat apportionments

Less than one week in advance of the Student Government elections, the Senate approved the 2017-18 election apportionments, which, according to the bylaws, should have been authored into a bill no less than three meetings ahead of the end of the fall semester.

Senate Speaker Danielle Nygard made note of this during the Senate meeting on Wednesday, March 1, accrediting it to a fault by the previous election commissioner from the fall semester.

“This should have been given to us before the end of last semester, but I was working with the [new] election commissioner since everything that happened last year with the Election Commission,” Nygard said.

The Senate seat apportionments, Nygard said during the meeting, are determined using the same equation the federal government uses for the House of Representatives.

The seats are then divided between the constituency councils. On Wednesday, the Senate approved 37 seats – the same as last year.

Because the bill was submitted late, should the Senate need to make any adjustments, changes or look further into the apportionments, this could not be done until the next election cycle.

“So basically if you have a problem with this, we can take it up as a policy discussion for the next cycle,” Cole Staudt, Student Government president said during the meeting. “… There’s nothing we can do about what’s on the screen.”

Student Government clerk and Inter-Residence Hall President Jacob Zirkelbach raised concern at the meeting about the population cited in the bill regarding the IRHA senate area, saying that he believed the population to be about 7,500 and not 10,104 as listed.

IRHA Senator Sam Freestone backed his concern.

It was pointed out during the meeting that the Registrar provides the numbers, and that it’s not the Election Commission delegating the numbers.

“If we were to deny it and return it to the Election Commission to fix it … we would have to call a special meeting before the elections on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to get this changed,” Nygard said.

More than 40 Iowa State students are running to be Student Government senators, according to the election commission. If elected, the senators would serve a year-long term in the legislative branch starting this April.

Petition alleging Tillo-Barnes campaign violations

A petition for a hearing by the Supreme Court of Student Government has been requested by the West-Smith campaign manager Jacob Zirkelbach against the Tillo-Barnes campaign, according to documents obtained by the Iowa State Daily.

According to the petition, Zirkelbach suggests that during the last 3.5 weeks, the Election Commision has “routinely come up short in terms of enforcing and abiding by election code.”

Noah Collins, the election commissioner, said via email to the Iowa State Daily on Thursday, March 2, that the West-Smith campaign has not violated any rule regarding campaign funding disclosure to that date.

A specific date for the hearing has yet to be announced as of Sunday evening.

In the case against Tillo-Barnes, Zirkelbach refers to 15 infractions he says have been made by the Conner Tillo and Rachael Barnes campaign that have yet to be addressed through a hearing, discussion or fine.

According to the Feb. 28 Election Commision meeting minutes, the Tillo-Barnes campaign was fined $150 after the slate failed to provide a lack of statement of funding on three separate accounts.

Zirkelbach said in the petitioner brief that he has little faith in the Election Commission to execute its duties and to enforce election code in “any meaningful way.”

He cites that “the goal is to keep the playing field level by discouraging behavior that can lead to unfair advantages and expenditures over the opposing campaigns.”

Student Government Chief Justice Kevin Boeckholt released an order Friday morning that approved a request from Zirkelbach to expedite the hearing process – something only granted in extraordinary circumstances, according to the Rules of the Court.

Boeckholt said in the order that he realizes “the potential outcome of this case may have an impact on the current executive campaigns and the 2017 Student Government election.”

The petition alleges that during the course of the campaign season, the Tillo-Barnes campaign has routinely made election code violations that have been unenforced by the commissioner.

These violations as recognized by Zirkelbach are as follows:

  • Chalking under overhang(s)
  • Posters posted on Ross Hall walls in unauthorized areas
  • Chalking in front of the Memorial Union
  • Chalking under the Gerdin overhang
  • Picture posted using Georges Niang and an Iowa State logo without permission
  • Campaign button violations
  • These violations include lack of trademarking approval, no Election Commissioner seal, no statement of funding and distribution of unapproved campaign material
  • “Here for I-S-U stickers”
    • These violations include lack of trademarking approval, no Election Commissioner seal, no statement of funding and distribution of unapproved campaign material
  • “Here for I-S-U stickers”
    • Posted on Memorial Union doors
  • “Here for I-S-U poster”
    • No statement of funding
  • Valentine’s vote Tillo-Barnes flier
    • No statement of funding
  • Distribution of buttons despite trademark violation
  • Paper poster with no statement of funding

In relation to the Ross Hall posters, which were in violation because they were distributed against university policy, the Election Commission found Tillo-Barnes not guilty and did not issue a fine.

The posters were against university policy because they were not posted on a community billboard nor did they have written approval from the building supervisor. However, Tillo-Barnes said they were unaware of the poster in the basement, according to Election Commission meeting minutes.

Staudt and West, during their bid for president and vice president in 2016, were found in violation by the election commision last year for a similar premise.

The Staudt-West slate was found guilty 7-0-1 of failure to carbon copy the election commissioner on emails that are distributing campaign material. The election commission said they believed “that although members of your campaign team were not aware of the rule, that does not exempt them from following all parts of election law.”

It was not stated in the minutes or the petition whether it was made clear that the posters were to be removed.

Zirkelbach reported in the petition that “people from the Vote Cody Campaign took it upon themselves” to remove the Ross Hall posters.

According to election code, to “intentionally damage/deface, obstruct or remove campaign material of another candidate or executive slate” is a violation.

In regard to the expedited proceeding, after the approval of it, the initiating party must submit a brief of oral arguments one day before the adverse party, according to the Rules of Court by Student Government.

The formal proceedings regarding the hearing must commence as soon as the Court can convene, the Rules of Court state. In no circumstances, however, shall the proceedings take place more than five days after the request was granted.

Zirkelbach states in the petitioner’s brief that he feels he and his campaign are at a disadvantage because of the lack of enforcement by the commissioner.

The Tillo-Barnes campaign said that a lot of the issues raised in the petition were resolved or were bring resolved by the election commission and them already.

The Student Government Supreme Court dismissed the case against the Tillo-Barnes campaign Monday night due to it being frivolous.

Overview of penalties for campaign violations

Per Election Code, any candidate or campaign found guilty of violating Student Government election law shall be assessed a penalty. These penalties are based financially and could range anywhere between $24 to $1,600.

Under the violations, there are three different groups of violations the infractions could fall under: campaigning, finance and fraud.

The Election Commission will consider the nature of the violation and can choose to suspend the financial penalty with any contingencies the commission deems fit, according to Election Code.

Penalties are then distributed in the following order, as listed by Election Code:

  • Candidate reimbursement (executive slates only)
  • Stipend (elected slates only)
  • Executive scholarship (elected states only)
  • Additional fines
  • Nullification of contest
  • Barred from future elections, non-appealable to future Election Commissions

On top of the penalties, should a candidate commit an “extreme malicious violation” by a winning candidate by two-thirds of the Election Commission, it will result in a nullification of the contest in question.

An extreme malicious violation may include, but is not limited to, buying votes or bribery, or harassment of opposition or voters.

The Daily’s Emily Barske contributed reporting to this piece.