Since we launched the Money, Politics and Transparency project in early 2014, we’ve documented political finance practices, current reform efforts, and just last month, we revamped our website with cutting-edge research that showcases the troublesome role of money in politics across the globe. We know that political finance systems are vulnerable to manipulation, can lead to inequity and are far too opaque. But, what’s next? To ensure that this knowledge doesn’t increase the already entrenched cynicism toward elections in politics, we need to use it to create systems that are proactively fair, transparent and accountable rather than reactive to scandal.
A few weeks ago, we brought together global experts — lawyers, academics, data analysts and coders — to discuss the Declaration on Political Finance Openness, our attempt to build international consensus on how to tackle the question of what’s next for the political finance community. Naturally we weren’t able to solve all of the problems facing political finance during a one-day workshop. However, we were able to get to the crux of some of the fundamental dividing issues and figuring out these sticking points is crucial in building a set of values that we all can agree upon. We envision these concerns shaping the debate going forward and, as we integrate public feedback, we want to create a platform that accommodates them as best we can.
There is no cookie cutter approach to regulating political finance
Our Campaign Finance Indicators and case studies demonstrate that it is possible to regulate all aspects of political finance and still have a system subject to abuse and corruption while the culture in another may make certain regulations unnecessary. The Russian Federation scores well in the Campaign Finance Indicators in law, but very few would believe that parties there are on a level playing field. Sweden, on the other hand, has no law explicitly banning the use of state resources during campaigns, yet, there’s no evidence that any are used. Given the importance of country-level context, does it make sense for our community to create a vision that is broad or more specific? Does it make sense to create a set of global norms at all?
Current international standards and guidelines on this subject run the gamut from high-level principles to precise, prescriptive recommendations. The U.N. Convention against Corruption appeals to a commitment to take measures to prevent corruption broadly, and although political finance practices are an implied potential source of corruption, the document only explicitly mentions the funding of political parties and candidates once. On the other hand, the Council of Europe recommendations lays out specific policy tools, such as banning foreign contributions and limiting campaign expenditure. We need to decide to which of these approaches makes sense for us.
Broad principles are valuable in that they have weight globally and can be applied flexibly while leaving the specifics of regulations to be nailed out within context. However, more rigid prescriptions run less of a risk of an adoption of the principles “in spirit” with no intention of carrying out the document’s will in practice. One of the ways we’re trying to alleviate this tension is to try and do both. The Declaration is intended to provide a broad vision for political finance systems toward which the community feels a commitment. However, we’re also planning to release more descriptive guidance alongside the principles that grounds the theoretical principles with lessons learned in practice. Further, we envision that each article of the Declaration will fit into the completed document, but will also have the ability to stand alone, allowing groups to adopt the relevant aspects of it.
The right of the public versus the rights of private entities
In most countries, political parties are generally regarded as private organizations rather than public institutions in law. Often the position that political parties are private entities and should enjoy a right to privacy serves as the basis for arguments against the detailed reporting requirements, the disclosure of finances or other rigorous regulation that public institutions are subject to. Further, political donors also cite their entitlement to privacy as the main reason why they don’t need to disclose their donations to political parties and campaigns.
Weighing the value of the right to privacy against the public’s right to transparency and the good that increased disclosure can have in political finance monitoring is difficult, especially when different countries place differing values on an individual’s privacy. But this distinction has clear implications on policies. For example, here in the U.S., Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts has said repeatedly cited disclosure of political donors as the leading tool to fight corruption. However, last year the E.U. instituted the Right To Be Forgotten ruling, illustrating a strong value placed on privacy. However, even in conceding that political parties are private organizations, they exude a clear influence on important aspects of public life, from elections, to court-appointees and policy-making. In most countries, political parties are also at least somewhat dependent on state funding and the Declaration needs to take these factors into account as well.
The importance of political buy-in
If our goal is to encourage widespread adoption of the Declaration, buy-in from legislatures, governments, candidates and political parties is essential. However, putting forth a set of values that is palpable to these entities may mean compromising on aspects of regulation that may have weight in combating corruption or leveling the playing field for those interested in running for office. Contribution limits exemplify this concern. Despite the sentiment that limiting the amount an individual can contribute to parties or campaigns is a viable means to reduce the influence of wealthy donors on policy-making and reduce the cost of elections, widely accepted documents, such as the Council of Europe recommendations, do not mention them at all. In order to gain the broadest consensus as possible, should we omit components deemed controversial?
It’s important that the Declaration is taken seriously, but we also don’t want to put forth a document that we perceive as weak. And given the marginal success of documents that take the soft approach, maybe we should use this opportunity to demand more from political actors and target those who demonstrate an in-practice commitment to reforming this issue rather than those who may only want to “commit” to accountability in political finance on paper. We tend to believe we should tread on the side of the latter.
Striking a balance within all of these interests is difficult, and more importantly, should reflect the consensus of those who are contributing to the conversation. As we move into the next iteration of this document, we would like your input on these concerns — and any other feedback you may have on the Declaration. You can find the most recent draft on the Money, Politics and Transparency website. You can also share comments on the document or the process by emailing Lindsay Ferris at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.