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The House Judiciary Committee has advanced two bills as part of the Republican leadership’s agenda to improve transparency and accountability in government.
The first, HB 2588, would require all candidates for elected office to file their campaign finance reports online using an internet-based program created by the Secretary of State. Candidates for statewide office have been required to submit their campaign finance disclosure reports electronically for some time, and it’s past-time for candidates for the Legislature and other elected offices to be required to do the same. Although candidates could still request and be granted a hardship exemption, electronic reporting would streamline filing and oversight, making it easier for the Secretary of State to audit and monitor campaign finance reports for compliance.
Electronic filing would also make it possible to develop a searchable, online database of contributors to West Virginia political campaigns. This would be much more meaningful and user friendly for the public than viewing scanned documents that aren’t searchable and are sometimes illegible. If HB 2588 passes, we hope the Secretary of State will establish such a database, even though it is not required. We’d also like to see the online reporting mandate apply not only to candidates but also to all political contributions and spending, including third parties making independent expenditures. With third party political spending playing an ever growing role in our elections, thanks to the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it’s more important than ever that this spending be disclosed, and be disclosed in a meaningful and timely way.
Unfortunately, on the sixth anniversary of the decision, it remains to be seen whether the Legislator will take action or continue to allow millionaires and billionaires to write six-figure checks for mud-slinging ads without disclosing their identity. This brings us to HB 4001, which would expedite the reporting of campaign contributions received by candidates for the Legislature, Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Attorney General, and Commissioner of Agriculture while the Legislature is session. Under the proposal, candidates for these offices would have to report contributions greater than $250 within 10 days of receiving them. The accelerated reporting would also apply to any fundraising events held by a candidate while the Legislature is in regular or special session.
We appreciate that the bill’s sponsors want to address the perceptual problem of legislators and other elected officials receiving campaign contributions from lobbyists and others while the Legislature is in session. On the other hand, while the bill may deter some political spending during legislative sessions, it does nothing to discourage or prevent wealthy donors and special interests from making large donations to candidates the rest of the year. Moreover, direct contributions to candidates are (at least for now) subject to contributions limits and are already required to be disclosed.
We certainly don’t deny the corrupting influence these contributions can have, which is why we have long advocated for public financing of elections to enable candidates run for office without having to rely on contributions from wealthy donors and special interests. However, if the Legislature wants to get serious about disclosure of campaign cash, they should make sure every secret money group – liberal and conservative – attempting to sway election results has to disclose where the money came from. Our right to know who is influencing our elections is not a partisan issue. No matter your political beliefs, we all benefit when we know what is going on in the government.
Even Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia supports increasing transparency and disclosure in our elections. In the Citizens United decision he wrote, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” The Legislature shouldn’t allow this lowly form of campaign cowardice to continue.