Which states have strong campaign finance oversight?

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Gov. Scott Walker recently passed a bill that may have reduced capacity for campaign finance oversight in Wisconsin. (Photo credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr)

If a state has campaign finance limits but no one is there to enforce them, do they really matter? The strength of oversight mechanisms is a fundamental part of an effective campaign finance system. Just as it is important to know what is happening with campaign finance limits and rules for disclosure, it’s important to know whether governments have effective oversight structures that let them enforce their own rules. In addition, since we have seen a lot of significant changes in U.S. campaign finance rules over the last number of years, it is vital that we know how the states are adapting to the new national campaign finance environment.

The State Integrity Investigation (SII) has produced in-depth research on key indicators regarding effective oversight for all 50 states. To update the data collection — tracking campaign finance developments since the end of the research period — we focused on two avenues through which we thought oversight systems could (or should) have demonstrated change: First, through their levels of active enforcement and, second, through passage of new laws, rules or guidance.

To research the former, we dug through national and local news sources for any instances in which state officials were fined or charged for violating campaign finance laws, using search keywords such as “campaign finance violation,” “ethics violation” or the always helpful “campaign finance scandal.”

However, the enforcement category presents its own challenges: Do indictments mean robust oversight? Or do indictments point to a culture of corruption? And, even when officials are publicly punished, we have little sense of how many of their colleagues may be escaping scrutiny. As there is no perfect measurement method to resolve this issue, we decided to view instances of public penalties as examples of oversight mechanisms functioning as they should.

Administrative change is easier to gauge: We used Sunlight’s Open States tool, along with LegiScan and state legislature websites, to find approved bills that strengthened oversight bodies in terms of funding or scope, and to find bills that did the opposite.

Overall, we found that 28 of 50 states had at least one new oversight-related development. Our research showed that public officials were fined or charged for elections violations in 24 states.

While a majority of the states saw some oversight-related action during the past year, some of those events were particularly notable. Here are what we observed to be the highlights — and lowlights — in the past 12 months of state campaign finance oversight.

Active enforcement

Over the past year, several high-ranking state officials or entities have been indicted or fined for campaign finance violations. State attorneys general or election enforcement agencies usually launched these investigations.

  • New Mexico was home to the most egregious case: In October 2015, Secretary of State Dianna Duran pled guilty to embezzlement and money laundering for using campaign contributions to fund her gambling habit. Given that Duran was the state official duty-bound to enforce elections law, her case undermined public trust. Kudos, however, go to Attorney General Hector Balderas for uncovering the crime. Duran’s sentence, which included 30 days in prison, fines, restitution, 2,000 hours of community service and an unusual requirement to make 144 hours worth of public appearances to discuss her wrongdoing, serves as a strong deterrent.
  • Elsewhere, the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission levied a record $325,000 fine on the state Democratic Party. This came as a settlement for a case in which Gov. Dan Malloy was accused of illegally financing his re-election with federal campaign funds. The state party did not admit wrongdoing.

On the other hand, Sunlight found instances in which oversight bodies awarded weaker penalties than outlined in law or, in some cases, failed to enforce a penalty at all.

  • In Indiana, for example, former gubernatorial candidate Glenda Ritz was accused of illegally raising a quarter of her campaign funds during the legislative session — but her campaign claimed it had made a “clerical error” and she wasn’t penalized.

Administrative change

Robust oversight relies on independent entities that can monitor candidates, political parties and PACs. This year, Wisconsin and South Carolina represented opposite sides of the same coin: regress and progress.

  • In December, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed AB 388, a bill that dissolved the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board and created the Wisconsin Ethics and Elections Commissions in its place. While nonpartisan judges led the Government Accountability Board, a group of Republican and Democratic appointees will spar on the new commissions, leading to probable partisan gridlock and reduced capacity for oversight. The dissolution of the Government Accountability Board represents the end of a long and contentious relationship between the governor and the ethics body, and the end of the nation’s first nonpartisan elections oversight body.
  • In South Carolina, however, lawmakers made progress toward strengthening independent oversight. HB 3184 ended the status quo, in which members of the legislature investigated ethics allegations against other members, to create a new, independent state ethics commission. While the commission, like Wisconsin’s new model, will have partisan members appointed by the governor and the legislature, the Palmetto State has still made important strides in the right direction.

The above cases are just a snapshot of the developments we tracked over the past year. With ethics fines and penalties for officials in nearly half the states, not to mention those who may still be committing misdeeds under the radar, it is crucial that every state continues to commit to having an agency willing and able to enforce campaign finance law.

Our research shows that many states are not there yet, but that they can learn from those that have made progress.

Here’s where to start: Global Integrity and Sunlight are partnering to launch the State Expert Connector, a repository of contact information for experts on transparency and accountability across all 50 states. Robust oversight is not a natural phenomenon; it occurs when experts and lawmakers work together to win policy victories, one bill at a time. By providing a place to learn about the actors working on transparency and accountability issues across America, we hope to help seed more victories and that, a year from now, the list of states with strong oversight mechanisms will only grow longer.

Let us know your feedback and comments, including the utility the State Expert Connector might have for you and/or your organization. Please get in touch with Emily Shaw at eshaw@sunlightfoundation.com or with Johannes Tonn at johannes.tonn@globalintegrity.org.