Editor's note: Now through Wednesday, Colorado Politics presents eight perspectives on campaign finance reform.
There is constant talk of campaign finance reform in legislatures across the country and certainly in Congress. The problem with most of the current discussion is that ideas for reform focus on the wrong audience. We should be focused on what voters need in terms of information that helps them make decisions about candidates and campaigns and the best way to provide it in a clear and concise way.
While it is easy for campaign finance to become simply a way for candidates to fight over who’s right and who’s wrong, the real issue is about what voters need to make decisions and how to make the information truly transparent.
So, my goal here is to offer a few ideas that would directly help voters figure out who is influencing their voting decisions.
Any campaign finance reform should and must be premised on complete transparency. Much of the focus on reform over time has been on reducing individual contribution limits. Colorado has some of the lowest limits in the country with regard to statewide offices. That simply means that now three things are happening: First, significant amounts of money are being raised on the soft side where visibility and transparency are reduced or non-existent. Second, it is a significant advantage to be independently wealthy and fund your own campaign. Finally, individuals’ power is reduced as compared to other entities.
Reduced limits also create conditions for candidates and campaigns to lose their ability to control their message and instead the story is told by independent expenditure committees that are not allowed to “coordinate with the candidates.” Instead, those groups focus on the negative ads that are often found to stretch the truth.
I would argue that most likely there is coordination, albeit subtle, but the larger issue is that voters hear the positive messages directly from the campaigns, but the negative ads come from the soft side, and it is difficult to tell who is funding that beyond the shallow display of the “registered agent’s” name.
Regardless of limits, or any other policy reform idea, voters need access to information real-time about who is influencing their voting decisions. Now mind you, what I am about to propose does not exist anywhere in the country today and requires a technical solution:
• Full transparency and real-time reporting.
• Technology to implement full transparency. Full and real-time transparency requires a technical solution to allow candidates and campaigns to submit their donations immediately for reporting purposes. So, imagine a reporting system with an API (application programming interface) or the like to allow candidates or campaigns to report donations real-time as they happen.
• Require candidates, campaigns, committees, and anyone engaged in electioneering activities to file all mail pieces, digital ads, commercials with the Secretary of State’s Office. All would then be linked within each entity’s account. Each entity would be given a digital code or account number so that when a voter receives a mailer, they could scan the code or enter the number into the system, and the complete financial information for the entity would be displayed. The voter would have full and complete transparency for all campaign material that they receive.
• Communicate to voters and let them know how to find and access information. Once the technical solution above is created, communicate the location of the information to voters by placing a note on the ballot instructions and in the TABOR notice. The note could say, “Find out who is trying to influence my vote by visiting this website.”
A final idea relates to the accuracy of information that is distributed by candidates or campaign entities. When I was running elections in Denver, we experienced a campaign that mailed a postcard that had incorrect information on it about the deadline to return the mail ballots. This likely contributed to the increase in late ballots. We had no way to hold the campaign accountable to correct the error. I believe that the entity that produced something that made an unintentional mistake should be held accountable to correct the error. This will protect voters and ensure they have access to the most accurate information.
Nationally, the 2018 midterm election was the most expensive on record, with over $5 billion being spent across the country. The Citizens United ruling in 2010 catapulted political spending by outside groups.
Given these dynamics, we must focus on increasing transparency and creating technical solutions that empower voters with information on who is influencing their decisions.
Amber McReynolds is executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute in Denver and was director of elections for the City and County of Denver from 2005 to 2018.