Friday, November 2, 2007

Who's giving? Who knows? States keep voters in the dark - USA Today editorial

Today's USA Today features this editorial highlighting the findings of the Grading State Disclosure 2007 study recently released by the California Voter Foundation and the Campaign Disclosure Project. The editorial, which is featured below, also listed the top five states (Washington, California, Oregon, Florida and Hawaii) and bottom five states (Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Alabama and Wyoming) in the campaign disclosure rankings, and noted the lack of electronic filing by U.S. senators and senate candidates.


Voters in Mississippi will go to the polls next week to elect a governor, other state officers and a new Legislature. But if they want to find out in advance who is bankrolling a given candidate, good luck.

Mississippi is one of 27 states that don't require campaign fundraising and spending reports to be made electronically, resulting in a flood of cumbersome paper filings that delay meaningful public access to this critical information.

Two states - sprawling Wyoming and Montana - don't even make campaign-finance information available online at all, meaning concerned citizens have to travel up to hundreds of miles to the state capital to look up information or order copies at 15 cents or more per page.

In the age of the Internet, there's no excuse for a lack of timely, searchable disclosure.

But in too many states, entrenched politicians have repeatedly sandbagged efforts to let the public know more about where they're getting their money and what they're spending it on. Alabama, Kansas and New Mexico are among those where recent reform efforts have been stymied.

When the Campaign Disclosure Project, a nationwide evaluation sparked by a coalition of good-government groups, recently examined requirements in each state, it found:

* 29 states don't require that campaign contributors disclose their occupation and employer, key information in looking for potential conflicts of interest and sweetheart arrangements between politicians and their financial backers.

* 17 states have no provisions for impartial audits of whether campaign-finance reports are accurate or works of fiction.

* 14 states don't require timely reporting of last-minute contributions, allowing big-bucks donations that wouldn't look good under public scrutiny to remain hidden until after an election.

* 14 states still don't have searchable databases for citizens to easily examine where office-seekers are getting their contributions from.

Lack of transparency isn't unique to the states. At the federal level, candidates for the U.S. Senate still aren't required to file their campaign-finance reports electronically. These paper reports have to be converted to electronic form at taxpayer expense, delaying timely analysis of contributions and expenditures. An attempt to change that was stalled last month when Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., insisted on an unrelated amendment.

The good news is that some states are toughening their campaign-finance reporting requirements and making the information more accessible to the public.

Oregon jumped from 24th to third place in the Campaign Disclosure Project's ratings with changes adopted in the wake of a scandal involving a prominent legislator. Eighteen states earned grades in the A or B range, up from only two in 2003, when the project began. (Of the states besides Mississippi holding gubernatorial or legislative elections on Tuesday, Virginia and New Jersey ranked in the top tier; Louisiana and Kentucky were among the laggards.)

Money is not only the mother's milk of politics, it too easily can be a vehicle for corruption or the appearance of corruption. The best antidote is public exposure of campaign-finance information in a prompt and accessible way.

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