Cameron Young's honours thesis reaped two distinctive awards.

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Top paper reveals impact of advertising rules on American vote share

October 05, 2016
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By Allen Tung

An honours degree in economics won’t be Cameron Young’s only distinction when he crosses the convocation dais this week.

His honours thesis was recognized as one of best undergraduate papers in the world—in the top ten per cent of all economics paper to be exact—by the Undergraduate Awards, the world’s largest academic awards programme.

As well, Young is co-winner of the Jack Knetsch Award for the best essay in an SFU economics honours thesis course.

Young’s paper tackled independent, expenditure-only, political action committees (PACs), known as super PACs, and their ever-growing influence on U.S. elections. He found a significant correlation between strong super PAC support and vote share for a bill or election candidate.

“Campaign finance has been at the forefront of this year’s presidential election and I wanted to know what effect this money was having,” says Young, an international student who grew up in Portland, Oregon.   

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 ruled corporations are people and donating money to political causes is free speech under the constitution’s First Amendment. As a result, super PACs face no limits on the amount of money they can raise and spend on advertisements supporting or opposing different candidates and bills.

“I did some analysis and looked at the research that has been done in cognitive science on the truth effect,” Young says. “The truth effect theorizes people are more likely to believe a statement if they hear it repeatedly.”

Based on Young’s modelling of the 2012 and 2014 U.S. House of Representatives’ elections, a 20-to-30 per cent increase in PAC support resulted in a percentage point increase in vote share.

“With no spending limits, Super PACs can barrage citizens with political advertisements and affect election results,” he says. “That’s very dangerous since democracy can be undermined.”

Young’s now pursuing his master’s in economics in Barcelona, Spain at Universitat Pompeu Fabra where he plans to expand on his paper.

“Honours was demanding, but it really gives you a dry run of what it’s like to pursue graduate research. More importantly, it has provided me with the tools I need to succeed.”