It’s been two and a half months since the primary election, and we’ve been awash in campaign advertising that whole time.
Candidates for all major positions have been on television, radio, and in print telling their stories or blasting their opponents. And on top of that have been all the ads from “independent expenditure committees” or “super PACs” which, since the Citizens United decision, can accept and spend unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, or even uber-rich individuals to support or attack candidates.
The rest of us have to play by different rules. Campaign donations to candidates are limited by law. For example, in Hawaii no one can contribute more than $6,000 to a candidate for governor, or $2,000 to a candidate for the state House. Okay, most of us will probably never have enough money available to contribute the maximum to any candidate’s campaign, but at least no one else, no matter how rich, can go over that amount. In theory, this prevents wealthy individuals or organizations from simply buying a candidate by providing all the campaign money they need, with strings attached, of course.
But those independent committees are a different breed. The U.S. Supreme Court has equated spending money to influence elections with free speech. And so as long as unlimited amounts don’t go directly to candidates, super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money channeled from their special interest backers. No limits apply.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Citizens United case open the door to virtually limitless campaign donations by funding groups as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.
Flickr: www.flickr.com: DonkeyHotey
The public’s only real line of defense against the takeover of elections by special interest money is disclosure. Candidates and political action committees can still be required to disclose where their money comes from and how it is spent. Hawaii’s Campaign Spending Commission has a robust system for providing public access to information candidates and political committees are required by law to disclose.
Presumably, if we’re shocked by the patterns of influence and obligation revealed in these campaign finance reports, we can vote accordingly and throw the well-financed scoundrels out of office.
And there’s the big problem. If you want to know where all the money fueling the post-primary campaign ads has been coming from over these past 10 weeks, you’re so far out of luck.
Why? Because there’s been no reporting throughtout this extended period. The most recent public reports filed with the Campaign Spending Commission only covered the period through the Aug. 9 primary. All of the subsequent spending remains hidden.
The next campaign reports aren’t due at the Campaign Spending Commission until next week. The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27. If the commission’s online access system works flawlessly, the public will get its first peek at all the post-primary activity by Tuesday, just one week before the general election. That leaves little time for anyone to digest the data and identify patterns that might sway votes.
But the practical situation is even worse than that due to early voting. More than half of all primary voters statewide this year cast absentee ballots, with just 43 percent going to their polling places on Election Day. The first absentee ballots for the general election were mailed Oct. 14, and early walk-in voting started this week. If the same thing happens in the general election, it’s entirely possible that nearly half of all voters will have cast their ballots before the final pre-general election disclosure reports are even filed, much less digested and analyzed.
The confluence of early voting and Hawaii’s late disclosure renders all the information to be disclosed next week by campaigns and political committees of little or no practical political use.
I’m sure that’s good news to the candidates and special interests who benefit from the the flow of big bucks into campaigns. For the rest of us, not so much.
It’s past time to revamp the schedule for mandatory disclosures of campaign contributions and expenditures. The Legislature needs to come to grips with the impact of early voting and, at minimum, move existing deadlines forward so that up-to-date campaign finance information is publicly available prior to the first votes being cast. And there need to be more frequent reporting periods in order to eliminate the blackout periods, such as this long stretch since the primary where no information on the sources and impacts of special interest money has been available.
Long-term solutions to the problem of unlimited special interest money need to be developed, including a system of publicly financed elections. In the meantime, though, we need to be demanding more timely campaign disclosure.
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Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.