Campaign Finance – The Public Has a Right to Know!

(It is our pleasure to bring Jim Condos to our front page! – promoted by Sue Prent)

By Jim Condos

Elections are the very core of our democratic process; citizens must be assured of the integrity of those elections. This winter, the Vermont legislature should work to ensure that our elections, and therefore our elected officials, are not for sale to the highest bidder!

Here in VT, during the 2012 general election, one individual spent more than $1 million on campaign advertising through a Super Political Action Committee (PAC). If one individual is allowed to bankroll a campaign, serious questions arise about whose interests the elected candidate will serve.

Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court has left little room to regulate campaign finance. The Court has significantly limited a state’s ability to regulate contribution limits for Super PACs and expenditure limits for candidates, parties or PACs.

As a result, Super PACs have no limits on contributions/expenditures; and in many cases, have limited disclosure requirements about the identity of their donors including how much or when they have contributed.  Undisclosed contributions and unlimited spending allow an individual or small group to overwhelm all others in our elections.

As Secretary of State, I urge the legislature to enact campaign finance reforms aimed at improved disclosure of where the money is coming from and how it is being spent. I also ask for stronger enforcement and harsher penalties for those who violate the law.

The Court has previously held that the danger of potential corruption provides a rationale to provide limits on direct contributions to candidates.  As a result, Vermont’s limits on contributions to candidates still apply and are being strictly enforced.  However, as witnessed this past year, individuals who wish to spend unlimited money to influence our elections can do so by contributing to Super PACs. This is why transparency is the key.  

At a minimum, we must ensure our laws are more meaningful by making contributions and expenditures more transparent.  To accomplish this, several important changes are needed:

1.   Increased Campaign Finance Reporting Frequency

Candidates, Parties, and PACs

• 1st year of the election cycle – quarterly

• 2nd year (January – Primary) – monthly

• Primary to General Election – every 2 weeks

Mass Media Reporting

• 45 days prior to the General Election Primary through the General Election

• Disclosure within 24 hours of expenditure and BEFORE Mass Media is public

2.   Increased Enforcement – Penalties must be meaningful for all violations of the campaign finance law – from illegal coordination between a PAC and candidate to the late filing of reports.

3.   Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, to elect or defeat candidates, as long as they operate independently of candidate campaigns.  I will advocate for additional disclosure requirements:

o Disclosure of contributions to Super PACs within 24 hours of receipt during the 45 days preceding a primary or general election.

o Disclosure of top contributors to a Super PAC in mass media communications.    

o If one donor is responsible for ½ or more of the funds raised, that individual must appear in all electronic advertisements, claiming responsibility.

o Require donors to disclose their employer as required for federal elections.

4.   On-Line Reporting is more effective with an on-line filing system that is easier to use and more transparent. The Legislature must provide the resources to implement this new disclosure system. Once implemented, instantaneous electronic posting will be searchable, sortable, and more transparent for the public.

Vermont has always been a leader in reform – from abolishing slavery in our first state Constitution, banning billboards on our highways, to same-sex marriage.  We should lead on campaign finance reform as well. Vermont will be better for this.

Jim Condos is Vermont’s Secretary of State.

3 thoughts on “Campaign Finance – The Public Has a Right to Know!

  1. These are all great ideas.

    I’ve been curious about who is ultimately responsible for the monitoring and enforcement of campaign finance rules? Is it your office or the AG’s office?

    With regard to #4, however, I don’t believe that it will actually cost much or take long to implement. I have students who would love to take on a project like this for free as an internship.

  2. All good ideas, but not enough.

    One thing we need to challenge is the concept of independent expenditures. In reality, does the level of communication between a candidate’s campaign staff and some PAC really matter?

    When the PAC is dumping millions slandering the candidate’s opponent, from the perspective of the voters it is the same as candidate expenditures. Ok, minus the “I approved of this message” tagline. If the candidate didn’t approve there would be a phone call or a cease and desist order.

    Ultimately I’d like to see the campaign contribution limit (and party, PAC, referendum movement, lobbying organization, etc) set at a days wages at the federal minimum wage. Right now, $58. That way David Koch (or Lenore Broughton) and the guy who mows Koch’s lawn are roughly equal. Super PACs would need mass support to raise those huge sums. It would take a few thousand people to support one lobbyist in Washington. Volunteer labor would become even more vital to campaigns, and sheer numbers of supporters would beat wallet thickness. It would also encourage politicians to raise the minimum wage.

  3. We’ve got some great colleges in the state. Bring them into the process via an event to create a UI to display the data in the most effective and accessible way. It’s a terrific way to create transparency while supporting innovation.

    Here’s a site with info on the concept and some of the cities that have held events:

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