A number of states and localities have made disclosure reform a priority, producing innovations worth emulating. These institutions, unrestricted by congressional gridlock, offer proving grounds for a variety of reforms.
New York City
The New York City Campaign Finance Board exemplifies the idea that disclosure reports can be made both accessible and comprehensive. The Board fully audits each candidate’s campaign finance data and posts the contributions to a searchable database. The city’s laws require groups making independent expenditures to reveal the names of their CEO and owners. Organizations making political expenditures must also list the owners, executive officers and board members of groups that donate more than $50,000. Crucially, any individual or group attempting to influence city voters is required to print their top three donors on advertisements or literature.
The notion that the laws cannot be enforced properly is misguided, as California proved by fining two dark money groups $1 million and forcing the committees that received the illegally undisclosed contributions to disgorge the combined $15 million to the state of California.
In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an important measure that requires nonprofits that make political expenditures of more than $50,000 in a year, or $100,000 in four years, to release the names of donors who contributed more than $1,000. This targets some of the dark money groups discussed in the previous entry that use their “social welfare” designation to avoid disclosing contributions to political efforts.
Montana recently enacted the Montana Disclose Act, a bipartisan measure that requires all groups, regardless of tax-exemption status, to disclose donors and expenditures if they spend money to try to influence an election within 60 days of the vote. As Tarini Parti of Politico points out, this would force even 501(c)(4) organizations to disclose funding sources, which is important, as these groups have become conduits for independent “dark money” spending precisely because they do not have to disclose donors.
The movement for increased disclosure continues around the country, with the Philadelphia City Council passing new election rules, Illinois organizers pushing Governor Bruce Rauner to sign legislation that would increase independent expenditure disclosure requirements and the Alabama state legislature strengthening current disclosure rules.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics, which runs the indispensable Follow the Money contribution archive, maintains a collection of best practice reports on state disclosure reforms, including annual state disclosure requirement rankings. To follow state level bills, visit Sunlight Foundation’s Open States.
These efforts are vital. Without disclosure, campaign finance laws fall to pieces, and it is absolutely essential that we craft enforceable and consistent requirements at the local, state, and federal levels, as part of a wider push for campaign finance reform.