Change for the better in state-level campaign finance disclosure

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(Photo credit: Ervins Strauhmanis/[Flickr](https://www.flickr.com/photos/ervins_strauhmanis/9547580380/))
(Photo credit: Ervins Strauhmanis/Flickr)

With recent Supreme Court rulings leading to an increase in the amount of money eligible to legally affect elections, it becomes even more important to have adequate transparency in campaign finance. Happily, in our review of the past year’s changes to state laws on campaign finance disclosure, we’ve seen legal improvements across the country that should improve the accuracy and timeliness of publicly available campaign finance information. The results are mixed, but overall states made real progress in 2016, with California, Maryland and South Dakota taking positive strides. However, some states, like Arizona and Wisconsin, took steps backward in terms of allowing more money and less disclosure into their local elections.

Although Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United have restricted states’ ability to limit political donations, our right to require campaign finance disclosure has remained fundamentally intact. The Supreme Court recognizes that “‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending … would help citizens ‘‘make informed choices in the political marketplace.’” We need to be able to see who is giving what to which candidates to evaluate whether new officials are favoring campaign donors with contracts, state support or other favorable outcomes. Transparency in government means that the government provides information that allows the public to see critical decisions and transactions. Understanding both the processes and outcomes of government action lets us know whether we have the right policies, and right political leaders, in place.

In the interest of seeing how states continue to work to meet this challenge, we are providing a one-year update on changes to state campaign finance law and practice occurring since the 2015 State Integrity Investigation (SII). Last November, Global Integrity and the Center for Public Integrity released the second round of the SII, an in-depth research project that evaluated how the 50 states each performed on 245 indicators of transparency and accountability. The study covered 13 institutional categories, ranging from access to information to state pension fund management. The Sunlight Foundation, with support from Global Integrity, decided to take a closer look at how campaign finance laws and practices have changed (or not) since the mid-2015 end of the SII data collection period.

In previous posts, we noted that the last year has seen a number of substantial changes across the country in the areas of campaign finance limits and campaign finance oversight. We also found substantial changes in laws affecting campaign finance disclosure.

Over the last year, 16 states passed law in this area. Changes in the laws of 12 states represented improvements, creating stronger campaign finance disclosure. Changes to law in three states weakened campaign finance disclosure. One state passed a law on campaign finance disclosure which didn’t appear to represent a significant change in either direction.

To view the spreadsheet in a new window, click here.
Of the states which saw improvements in disclosure between June 2015 and June 2016, improvements generally fell into the following categories:

Electronic report submission: The electronic submission of campaign finance reports significantly improves their quality and the speed with which they can be made available to the public. It’s therefore somewhat incredible that, as of 2015, 18 states still permitted campaigns to file on paper, despite the fact that paper submissions have created significant additional costs in terms of data-entry labor and data quality. (Only one state, Mississippi, does not support the electronic submission of campaign finance reports.) Happily, the country is continuing to move in the direction of requiring the electronic submission of campaign finance reports. New laws in West Virginia and Missouri require electronic filing of campaign reports. In West Virginia, advocates noted that this would finally make it possible to create searchable online disclosure that was “much more meaningful and user friendly for the public than viewing scanned documents that aren’t searchable and are sometimes illegible.” Meanwhile, new laws in New Hampshire, New Mexico and Connecticut enable more electronic filing of campaign finance reports, moving those states toward the goal of a fully searchable and updated online disclosure database.

New requirements for disclosure type of elections/candidates: New laws in Colorado, New Hampshire and South Dakota require campaign finance reports to be filed by candidates not previously required (in Colorado, this includes candidates running for school board) and for new stages of the campaign (New Hampshire’s new requirement that governors disclose the source of contributions to inauguration events), and also reduce exemptions from campaign finance disclosure requirements (as in South Dakota, which now requires primary-period disclosure from candidates running unopposed, among other closed loopholes.) Where laws expand the period of activity and entities covered, people can feel confident that they are seeing the full picture of donations to current and future officials.

Lower reporting thresholds: New laws in Maine and Connecticut lower the amount of money that a campaign must spend before it is required to file campaign finance reports. In Connecticut’s case, the threshold for mandatory reporting dropped from $250,000 to $1,000, representing a substantial change that should add all state races to the disclosure list. To give a sense of the significance of this change, in 2010 the national average for contributions raised in state legislative races was $79,142 and the national median was just $24,404.

Other improvements: More improvements to campaign finance disclosure systems include faster and more frequent disclosure requirements, like SB 248 in Illinois, a bill that generally speeds up reporting for independent expenditures by PACS and expands the length of the faster pre-election reporting period. The Hawaiian public also gains greater clarity on the actual source of campaign donations through HB 1491, which requires super PACs to help administrators tease through the layers of identity-shielding legal shells to identify the original source of their contributions.

Weaknesses: While the overwhelming majority of changes represented improvements, three states did pass laws which are likely to reduce the effectiveness of their disclosure regimes. Arizona and Michigan both passed laws which reduce the number of entities that are required to file a campaign finance disclosure: in Arizona, HB 5612 raised the minimum amount at which a committee must file from $500 to $1000, while in Michigan HB 4596/4597 excuses incumbent judges from needing to file at all. Virginia passed a weakening of its disclosure law with H1387 that moved pre-election filing deadlines from 5:00 pm to 11:50 pm, a change which may affect the speed with which those reports can be publicly reported.

Despite these few steps back, state-level legislative action over the past year mainly improved the public’s ability to find out who’s funding the campaigns in our states. For many states over the past year, while the progress has been incremental, it is nonetheless in the right direction. As long as states continue to improve their disclosure regimes, hope remains that we’ll eventually all be able to access the data we need in time to make informed choices during elections.