Political junkies and campaign operatives look poised to celebrate a new law set to take effect before the 2020 election cycle.
Under a proposed bipartisan change to Colorado’s campaign finance rule, the window for disclosing money spent on electioneering communications will be expanded to cover the entire period between the state’s primary and general elections. Additionally, every electioneering communication must include the name of the person or organization sending it out.
But how will the bill help ordinary voters?
Most campaign finance rules regarding disclaimers and disclosures benefit opposing campaigns and interest groups far more than any individual voter.
Staff comb through these reports searching for tidbits to use in a counter-attack. In contrast, I believe average voters neither pay attention to who paid for a mailer or television commercial nor access public databases to find out how much they spent.
As a longtime election law lawyer, I spent years parsing the statutory language surrounding disclosure requirements. The system is Byzantine, filled with legal terms of art and definitions that rarely comport with common vernacular. For context, the “electioneering communications” addressed by this bill relate solely to television, radio, print, or similar communications that unambiguously refer to a candidate and are distributed to members of the electorate for the public office the candidate is seeking, but don’t explicitly ask the reader to vote for or against the candidate. And, under current law, it has to be within 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election; if it falls outside that window, it cannot be an electioneering communication, no matter what it says.
That’s the simplified version.
The process to access and use disclosure information is even more convoluted. Even if someone doesn’t mute their television or deposit a flier directly into the wastebasket, and actually looks for a disclaimer, she’s likely to find the listed name as something like “Coloradans for Adorable Puppies” or “Citizens to Defend Apple Pie.”
Creating vague, banal names for these organizations is a part of the game for political professionals. It’s effectively useless to help everyday citizens determine the group’s motivation.
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Disclaimers do make it easier to search public databases for contribution and expenditure disclosures. Again, this isn’t a tool employed by typical voters figuring out how to fill out their ballots. I’d be shocked if even 1 percent of the electorate knew where to find these reports and how to access them.
I’ve spent decades working for political campaigns and using the Colorado’s online system, TRACER, but always in a professional capacity, never just to inform my vote. Of course it isn’t impossible that the bill won’t benefit someone who chooses to use the system to help cast a ballot, just exceedingly unlikely.
The big caveat here likely rests with the journalists and reporters covering elections. Outside the aforementioned political hacks prepping counter-offensives, journalists often represent the most intensive users of disclosure databases.
Sorting through page after page in reports comprising thousands of contributions and expenditures, the news articles produced provide a necessary and vital aggregation component to making any disclosure system functional on a practical basis.
As opposed to the biased Tweets or Facebook posts blasted out by competing campaigns, most reporters attempt to abide by their charge to remain objective. Assuming enough warm bodies and bandwidth to provide a full analysis, journalists providing unbiased information and transparency is the critical benefit to transparency bills such as this one.
While the legislature doesn’t have the ability to make sure there are enough journalists around to properly report on elections — that responsibility rests with others — they can provide additional tools to make the job easier.
Closing the gap between primary and general election disclosure requirements and mandating disclaimers is not the end-all-be-all of campaign finance reform. It likely will only make a small impact, if any, on the electoral process for most Coloradans. But it is a step in the right direction.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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