GUEST COLUMN: Campaign finance—the public has a right to know

By Jim Condos

Elections are the very core of our democratic process; citizens must be assured of the integrity of those elections. This winter, the Vermont legislature should work to ensure that our elections, and therefore our elected officials, are not for sale to the highest bidder!

Here in Vermont, during the 2012 general election, one individual spent more than $1 million on campaign advertising through a Super Political Action Committee (PAC). If one individual is allowed to bankroll a campaign, serious questions arise about whose interests the elected candidate will serve.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has left little room to regulate campaign finance. The Court has significantly limited a state’s ability to regulate contribution limits for Super PACs and expenditure limits for candidates, parties or PACs.

As a result, Super PACs have no limits on contributions/expenditures, and in many cases have limited disclosure requirements about the identity of their donors, including how much or when they have contributed. Undisclosed contributions and unlimited spending allow an individual or small group to overwhelm all others in our elections.

As Secretary of State, I urge the legislature to enact campaign finance reforms aimed at improved disclosure of where the money is coming from and how it is being spent. I also ask for stronger enforcement and harsher penalties for those who violate the law.

The Court has previously held that the danger of potential corruption provides a rationale to provide limits on direct contributions to candidates. As a result, Vermont’s limits on contributions to candidates still apply and are being strictly enforced. However, as witnessed this past year, individuals who wish to spend unlimited money to influence our elections can do so by contributing to Super PACs. This is why transparency is the key.

At a minimum, we must ensure our laws are more meaningful by making contributions and expenditures more transparent. To accomplish this, several important changes are needed:

1. Increased campaign finance reporting frequency.

For candidates, parties and PACs:

First year of the election cycle – quarterly

Second year (January – Primary) – monthly

Primary to General Election – every 2 weeks

Mass media reporting:

Forty-five days prior to the General Election Primary through the General Election

Disclosure within 24 hours of expenditure and before mass media is public

2. Increased enforcement: penalties must be meaningful for all violations of the campaign finance law, from illegal coordination between a PAC and candidate to the late filing of reports.

3. Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, to elect or defeat candidates, as long as they operate independently of candidate campaigns. I will advocate for additional disclosure requirements:

Disclosure of contributions to Super PACs within 24 hours of receipt during the 45 days preceding a primary or general election.

Disclosure of top contributors to a Super PAC in mass media communications.

If one donor is responsible for half or more of the funds raised, that individual must appear in all electronic advertisements, claiming responsibility.

Require donors to disclose their employer as required for federal elections.

4. Online reporting is more effective with an online filing system that is easier to use and more transparent. The legislature must provide the resources to implement this new disclosure system. Once implemented, instantaneous electronic posting will be searchable, sortable and more transparent for the public.

Vermont has always been a leader in reform—abolishing slavery in our first state Constitution, banning billboards on our highways and same-sex marriage. We should lead on campaign finance reform as well. Vermont will be better for this.

Jim Condos is Vermont’s Secretary of State.