Fixing the Campaign-Finance Problems: A High-Tech Proposal

robocatLast Friday, shortly after I filed an ethics complaint against Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, I saw his public comments regarding the entire fiasco.  Suffice it to say, I don’t think that, “this was my first race for public office, [so] the ins and outs of campaign finance reporting were new to both me and my campaign staff” is much of an excuse.  For one thing, if ignorance of the rules was a valid excuse, it would be just as well to have no rules at all, since anyone could avoid them by claiming that he didn’t know what was required.  For another, if you don’t know that calling gas “campaign supplies” after your election is over, maybe you should ask someone instead of just doing it.[foot]Not to mention, if Darr learned sometime after the end of 2011 that his previous method of campaign reporting was flawed, and he “believe[s] it’s important to own up to mistakes,” then why didn’t he inform the ethics commission prior to last week? Conversely, if he was still ignorant of his own mistakes as recently as last week, what does that say about his interest in actually figuring out campaign-finance rules before his second race for public office?[/foot]

Since the Darr story broke, the whispers that had followed Paul Bookout’s ignominious departure from the State Senate have grown into actual discussions of what can be done to prevent (or at least more quickly discover) future failures in campaign reporting.  Unfortunately, most of the suggestions seem to revolve around simply requiring the Arkansas Ethics Commission to be more proactive on their end, checking reports as they come in.  However good this plan might sound in the abstract, it’s simply not feasible, for a couple reasons.

First of all, the Ethics Commission simply does not have the human resources to review every fililng with a fine-toothed comb.  They have nine (9) full-time employees (though only eight (8) are currently filled), comprised of a director (Graham Sloane, who, in my opinion, does a fantastic job with the resources he is given), two (2) attorney specialists, two (2) compliance experts, an IT manager, a business manager, and two (2) administrative staff.  Meaning, in short, there are five (5) people who would be in a position to review filings.  And it’s not as if the Commission is overflowing with additional funding to support such a drastic change in their role; in fact, when the Commission was moved out from under the umbrella of Central Services in 2009, their budget actually decreased by roughly $17,000.

But, to the extent that someone feels that the five commission members should review every filing, consider just how many filings there are.  In an election year, you have seven constitutional offices, 100 House seats, and 35 Senate seats.  Including the primaries, you frequently have 300 or more candidates for those offices alone, all of whom have to file monthly CC&E reports during the election year.  Throw in local and county offices, whose reports are not available from the same central repository but are still subject to review by the Ethics Commission, and the number of reports in some months during an election year quickly balloons to more than 1,000.  Even ignoring the local/county offices for a moment, expecting the existing Commission members to properly review every filing to the level of granularity that you would need (at least where the reports weren’t absurd on their face), would leave the five members of the Commission little time to do anything else.

While it is a slightly better plan, even the idea of adding an ombudsman position is flawed, for similar reasons.  Obviously one person cannot give a detailed review to 300 or more filings per month, so the ombudsman would basically be skimming, looking for egregious red flags.  While this would theoretically catch the next Bookout/Darr, those kinds of screwups seem infrequent.  Using the current reporting rules and forms, the ombudsman would still have no idea if, for example, the cumulative donor amount on a report was accurate.  This is not verification so much as blind-trust until someone bothers to check back through all previous donations and see if the totals are right.

At the risk of using painfully on-the-nose analogy, think of this whole thing as trying to get rats out of your house.  Asking the current Ethics Commission to review all of the records themselves is akin to grabbing a hammer and a flash light and trying to kill a rat as it runs across the kitchen floor.  Hiring an ombudsman is basically paying your neighbor to bring his hammer and flash light and hang out in the kitchen with you all night.  In either case, maybe you do manage to get one or two rats, but the majority of the rats are going to get away.

What you need to do is build a better mousetrap.

The current search function on the Secretary of State’s website is, in a word, terrible.  It has a weird glitch where searching for all of a candidate’s records makes it randomly pull other candidates’ records and assign them to the wrong person.[foot]Case in point, when I recently searched for all of Mark Darr’s records, I got some CC&Es from Eddie Joe Armstrong and noted idiot Bob Ballinger.[/foot]  It has candidate’s records under multiple names, so that, if you go with the autofill suggestion of “Mark Alan Darr,” you don’t get the records that are stored as simply “Mark Darr.”  And, worst of all, you can’t actually search the records — you can only search for records for a specific person.

Tech-savvy readers probably see how easily all of this could be fixed.  You start by requiring that all campaign filings be made via a fillable PDF file, and you absolutely prohibit any future filings being handwritten.[foot]It’s 2013, for crying out loud — if you can’t manage to fill out a PDF and submit a typed CC&E, don’t run for office. I’m serious.[/foot] You also revise the CC&E reporting form to require more information. If a candidate wants to chalk an expenditure up to “fundraising” or “ticketed event,” that’s fine, but he now has to specify the location and date of the fundraiser or event that each expenditure is related to. If a candidate wants to claim an expenditure is for “campaign supplies,” she is going to have to submit a receipt at the same time as the report so that the expense is verifiable. From there, you amend Ark. Code Ann. § 7-6-214 to require that the Secretary of State store those filings as text-recognized, searchable PDFs.

With this new framework in place, you have the data and logistics available to make the big change: you take the money that you would spend on two years of an ombudsman position (say, roughly, $110,000) and, instead, you spend that money to totally revamp the user interface for searching campaign filings. A proper redesign would let you search by donor name, to see which candidates a specific donor has given to; type of expenditure (fundraiser, ticketed event, etc.); type of donor (PAC, LLC, campaign committee, individual); type of donation (cash, in-kind); or by a combination of these and other search criteria.  And, if you really want to create transparency, you take it a step further and, using existing Secretary of State data, cross-reference the campaign filings with the PAC, corporation, and LLC records.

While this improved ability to search filings would make it much easier for the Ethics Commission to be proactive in their review, since they would be able to more quickly check filings that were flagged on a cursory review, it would also make it easier for Arkansans to do their own checking.  If you then incentivize regular Arkansans to check the filings, that would address the idea that only bloggers/partisan researchers/political opponents would benefit from the more in-depth checking and it would get more Arkansans involved in the political process and aware of where the money in politics really comes from.  Such incentive would come in the form of a writ of qui tam, where a citizen whistleblower is entitled to a percentage of an penalty imposed against a candidate.  So, for example, Bob Hester would been entitled to a percentage (say 20%) of the $8,000 that Paul Bookout was fined.

As someone I was discussing this whole fix with mentioned, the qui tam award in conjunction with the technological changes, should be amenable to members of both parties. A principled conservative should support this plan as limiting the growth of government (since there would not be additional hiring needed by the Ethics Commission) and not needlessly increasing expenditures from the State treasury (since the payments would come from the wrong-doing official). For liberals, this plan represents public openness and encourages active citizen participation in the democratic process, starting long before election day and continuing after the ballots are counted. For both parties, the increase in transparency and accountability should be welcomed.

The only real objection I could see to this would be from certain legislators who feel that the new reporting requirements are burdensome. But that’s really no argument against this plan at all. No one makes a candidate run for office; if someone doesn’t want to jump through the right hoops in order to be on the ballot, then he or she can choose not to run. Any candidate who actually wants to represent the people and work for better government will work within the campaign-finance rules, regardless of what those rules require.

In addition, I fail to see how this plan is somehow more tedious than filling out CC&E reports by hand, or how it is tedious at all for most candidates. For the few candidates who raise so much money that complying with these rules really is tedious, they can spend some of that money on an additional campaign worker, rather than another farcical “ticketed event,” and have that new campaign worker assist with the filings. Besides, given what we’ve seen in the past three weeks from Bookout and Darr, should any voter really let “these rules require more work” trump actual transparency and accountability? Of course not.

If you start from the premise that something needs to be done to make sure candidates and office holders aren’t violating campaign-finance laws, then this plan appears to make the most sense of any plan that has been put forward so far. While increased funding for additional Ethics Commission staff only marginally increases the Commission’s ability to review records, revising the CC&E forms and spending State funds to create a better database makes it far easier for existing staff to review AND makes it easier for citizens to review as well.

In terms of a better mousetrap, this is like putting hundreds of robot cats armed with laser-guided anti-rat missles in your kitchen; it may not get every rat, but it will get a whole lot of them and have the rest too scared to do anything.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your comprehension of the problem and suggestion for correcting it are amazing. Maybe we could use senior volunteers, like those who work the polls, to create a team of people, train them and use them in a bi-partisan manner to be a citizen review system.

    On another note, I am extremely glad to have found your blog and am enjoying it tremendously.

    • Thanks, Phillip. I think that’s a great idea, too. That’s part of the reason that have the searchable PDFs (or, in a perfectly world, downloadable data that skips PDFs entirely) is such a big deal. Once the data was in usable form, there’s no limit to how third-party groups could choose to review it and present it (say, a third-party platform like Open Secrets).

      I hope you’ll continue reading and commenting. Aside from dave and a couple other infrequent commenters, there aren’t many people adding feedback on BHR, even though the conversation that stems from posts in one of my favorite things about blogging.

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