Op-Ed by NATHAN INKS
Transparency in campaign contributions and enforcement of the state’s campaign finance laws are crucial to protecting the integrity of our state’s elections and government. Unfortunately, both major political parties, candidates, and donors try to skirt the rules – often successfully.
Michigan’s new Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, hopes to change that and has proposed reforms that could have a meaningful impact on campaign finance transparency. Under the state’s current laws, political parties are not required to disclose donors to their administrative accounts. The original exemption was designed to allow political parties to be able to purchase items like office supplies without having to disclose donors and expenditures; a similar exemption exists at the federal level.
Over the past few decades, groups run by both Republicans and Democrats have used their administrative accounts to influence elections, running ads featuring or benefiting candidates; however, the groups are prohibited from using such accounts to coordinate with or contribute directly to candidates, and their ads cannot directly support or oppose a candidate up for election. Although compliant with the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of the law.
Benson hopes to change that and has advocated for legislation similar to that in a majority of other states requiring campaign finance disclosures for all political ads run within a certain time period prior to an election. Republicans in the legislature had previously expressed opposition to such a bill; however, Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), who served as the state’s previous secretary of state, supported a similar regulation during her secretary of state term. She currently serves as chairwoman of the Senate Election Committee and has expressed support for legislative action on the issue; her support could go a long way in getting such legislation passed.
The second area in need of reform is enforcement of the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws. There are currently around $1.5 million unpaid campaign finance violation fees that candidate committees and political action committees have racked up from either filing campaign finance reports late or failing to file them at all. When a candidate fails to file a required report, the secretary of state’s office is required to eventually report the matter to the attorney general’s office; however, such referrals often do not result in any prosecution.
When filing to run for office, candidates are also required to affirm under penalty of perjury that they have filed all necessary reports and paid all fines, but violations are hardly ever prosecuted. A quick search of the state’s campaign finance system would reveal numerous candidates who have repeatedly ignored the reporting requirements and filed inaccurate affidavits, and many of them have never been prosecuted – despite the secretary of state’s office performing its duties by notifying the attorney general of the violations.
Since Benson’s office has no ability to prosecute violators itself and has to turn collections over to the Department of Treasury, adding real teeth to the state’s reporting laws is a bit trickier and will likely require cooperation across multiple departments. When it comes to elections, there is little that Republicans and Democrats generally agree on, but support for transparency and enforcement of the rules is hopefully something the two parties have in common.
The voters of Michigan deserve to know who is using money to influence elections in the state.
The only way to ensure that voters can access that information is by eliminating the administrative account “dark money” loophole and adding real enforcement teeth to campaign finance laws. Benson’s proposals are good, common-sense reforms, and they deserve support from the governor and those in the legislature.