50 State Laws Complicate Matters

By Sandy K. Johnson

Tracking the influence of money at the state and local level requires a little more legwork, for the simple reason that 50 different state laws govern financial disclosure.

A few organizations offer help to decipher state requirements, Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause told National Press Foundation fellows. His group is one: It’s a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that fights for transparency and against corruption.

Another is the National Institute on Money in State Politics, informally known by its website, followthemoney.org. That group collects campaign finance and lobbying data from all 50 states, essentially creating one-stop-shopping for reporters to follow the money trail in their own states and also to compare across state lines.

Ryan also suggested the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws, a organization of lawyers, government officials, university professors and others who specialize in elections and campaign finance. They offer reporters good background information and tips.

Ryan also described how public financing of campaigns is taking root in some states and localities, even though the concept is “pretty much dead” at the presidential level. He said a new law in Seattle offers $100 vouchers to eligible residents (registered voters and others) that they can then give to candidates. The law is meant to give regular people a voice – and stake – in elections, rather than having candidates rely only on wealthy donors and special interests.

Ryan said states are not keeping up with regulating all the rapidly-evolving permutations of secret and dark money organizations. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has been a consistent voice for disclosure and transparency in public finance. Most cases have been 8-1 decisions (Justice Clarence Thomas is the outlier).

He mentioned a 2010 ruling requiring public disclosure of people who sign petitions to get initiatives and referendums on the ballot. In a concurring opinion, the late Justice Antonin Scalia scolded, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which … campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

That civic courage is lacking in the proliferation of dark money groups that rake in millions of dollars to influence elections and are not required to disclose who gave them money. Learn more about those groups here.

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