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Campaign Finance Disclosure: Who Actually Reads This Stuff?

There were a number of developments at this week’s interim meeting of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee of the Wyoming Legislature. Several draft bills suggest potential amendments to Wyoming’s campaign finance laws; some of proposals are good, and some of them are not. I am encouraged that members of the committee, Secretary of State Ed Murray, State Election Director Kai Schon, and Attorney General Peter Michael understand that campaign finance law is not a panacea and can, in fact, damage the political process for everything it supposedly fixes. Nevertheless, some are pushing for enhanced campaign finance “disclosure”—more frequent filing of more forms regarding broader swaths of political speech.

But who actually reads all this disclosure? I suspect very few people.

Between the first interim meeting in May and this meeting, I submitted a public records request to the Secretary of State’s office regarding WYCFIS – the Wyoming Campaign Finance Information System, or www.wycampaignfinance.gov. It’s the online campaign finance disclosure portal for elections for state office. I inquired as to whether the office records traffic to the website, and asked for this information to be (to borrow a phrase) disclosed.

I included Mr. Schon’s response in a memo submitted to the committee late last month. The Secretary of State has kept no records of web traffic to WYCFIS (notably, the office is not required to do so), thus we cannot currently assess whether all the forms being filed by Wyoming campaigns, political committees and others are reviewed by Wyomingites. (Some private outfits, such as National Institute on Money in State Politics, take information from WYCFIS and republish it on their own databases, but these organizations are either not tracking or not disclosing their web traffic, either.) To the Secretary of State’s credit, the office will implement Google Analytics and gather web traffic information for WYCFIS.

As I suggested to the committee, the legislature should at least have an idea of how campaign disclosure in Wyoming is actually utilized before adding more compliance requirements to campaigning and political advocacy. I believe reviewing two years of data, which would include a state election cycle, would be a good start.

The question of whether campaign finance disclosure is reviewed is one thing, but whether it informs is quite another. I experienced an excellent anecdote relating to this the evening before the meeting. In an informal discussion with a legislator and some advocates, one took issue with my opposition to expanded disclosure and, more broadly, campaign finance “reform.” When I mentioned that money is an element in elections, but not determinative, as an example I referenced Jared Olsen’s successful candidacy against Mary Throne in the 2016 election. I noted that Olsen’s campaign was outraised and outspent about 4-to-1 by Throne’s campaign. My opponent denied this at first, but it’s all disclosed—go ahead, I just re-checked the filings www.wycampaigfinance.gov. Will you? Will she?

When I held to my position, the advocate shifted tact and claimed that the Wyoming Republican Party made up for the funding gap by sending out mailers on Olsen’s behalf. Indeed, the state GOP spent a lot of money on mailers for races across the state—and directly contributed about $3,500 of Olsen’s roughly $10,000 campaign—but even assuming a number of absurdly expensive outlays for Olsen, that would only close the gap to a 2-to-1 funding advantage for Throne. (Moreover, Throne also received thousands of dollars in support via mailers by groups outside of her campaign.) The topic ended there, but I do not believe my opponent would acknowledge this even if she took the time to review the campaign finance reports.

Moreover, I do not believe the underlying cynicism in this conversation can be cured, especially not with more disclosure. Even an expanded regime will not alleviate the default belief that politicians (particularly those who disagree with a so-called reformer) are corrupt. Nothing short of perpetual audits or perhaps constant personal surveillance will ensure a reformer that an officeholder (or simply a politically active citizen) is not bought and paid for by a phantom plutocrat. With so few people reading these reports, and with no enlightenment for many of those who do read them, why do we need more disclosure? I daresay, parroting only half the cynicism of an average reformer, that the downsides to campaign disclosure, like punishing people for innocent accounting errors, are an objective of reformers and not merely unintended consequence of disclosure.

Jonathan Rauch once quipped that “The reformer’s job is never done! Indeed, it is always just getting started.” With more campaign finance disclosure, the Wyoming Legislature will likely serve very few Wyomingites, and those few who actually take the time to read even just one or two reports will probably not gain much insight or assurance. But rest assured, even if proponents of more “reform” get everything they ask for in the upcoming 2018 budget session, in a few years they’ll be back, demanding more filings, investigations, audits and other hurdles to political engagement, boldly saving our democracy by making it harder for citizens to be a part of it.

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Sunday, 25 February 2018

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