States are taking the lead in restoring government accountability and transparency through reforms in campaign finance, public access to records, ethics, and more. According to a poll conducted by The Harvard University Institute of Politics, reducing the power of money in politics is of critical concern to Millennials.15 In 2017, 23 states amended their campaign finance laws.16Michigan, Washington, and Maine enacted restrictions on the use of public funds or resources during campaigns while North Dakota and South Dakota created committees to study campaign finance reform options and recommend changes to the legislature.17
PUBLIC FINANCING OF CAMPAIGNS
Throughout the country, state legislatures are reforming campaign finance laws to include elements of public finance. Such programs expand opportunities for candidates, especially for non-traditional candidates, to gain access to resources and level the playing field when running for office. This is particularly important to younger candidates and young people considering running for office that do not have access to the same level of resources as older candidates or more traditional candidates. From small-dollar donor requirements in Connecticut, to democracy vouchers in Seattle, WA, states and cities are introducing public financing options to increase access to public service and encourage citizen participation.
Clean election programs: With bipartisan support in 2005, Connecticut passed legislation establishing the Citizen’s Elections Program (CEP). This voluntary program, available to candidates for statewide offices and the Connecticut General Assembly, limits the total amount of money candidates spend on the election as well as requires participants to raise a threshold of funds from individual contributions of no more than $100. To DRTF Member Representative Caroline Simmons (Conn.) the CEP increases the competitiveness of elections and holds candidates accountable by “reducing the amount of special interest money in campaigns allowing candidates to spend more time connecting with constituents rather than corporate donors.” In his 2018 campaign for state treasurer, DRTF Member Senator Art Linares (Conn.) participated in Connecticut’s Clean Election Program, supplementing the more than $80,000 in campaign contributions he raised from individual small-dollar donations. As a candidate for state treasurer, qualification for the program requires candidates to raise at least $76,000 from individual donations between $5 to $100.18
Democracy vouchers: In 2017, Seattle, WA launched a Democracy Voucher Program that provides eligible residents with four $25 vouchers to contribute to the candidate(s) of their choice. To participate in the program, candidates must collect a qualifying number of contributions ranging from $10 to $250. The program has increased voter engagement by encouraging participation from constituents who typically refrain from contributing to political campaigns. The concept of voucher systems is gaining momentum in cities throughout the country. In February of 2019, citizens of Albuquerque, NM will vote on a ballot initiative to expand their public finance system by creating a voucher program.19
TRANSPARENCY AND PUBLIC ACCESS TO RECORDS
Electronic filing of campaign contributions: One of the most widespread efforts to improve transparency and accountability in state legislatures involves leveraging technology for digital recordkeeping and management. In an effort to increase transparency in campaign contributions, state legislatures are enacting laws requiring the electronic filing of campaign contributions through statewide databases. Enacted in 2017, DRTF Member Representative Warwick Sabin (Ark.) sponsored a pair of bills requiring candidates to electronically file campaign finance reports tracked on a statewide database.
Digital recordkeeping: In 2017, legislation introduced by Colorado Future Caucus Co-Chair Representative Dan Pabon (Colo) moved state recordkeeping into the digital age by requiring that public records be available in searchable and sortable digital formats. Serving as the first major update to Colorado’s open records laws in more than a decade, this law is designed to increase the public’s trust with a more open and transparent system of governance.
Elimination of anonymous bill introduction: In 2018, DRTF Member Representative Stephanie Clayton (Kan.) introduced legislation to end the process of anonymous bill introduction in the Kansas state legislature. Rather than making the change through state legislation, anonymous bill introduction was eventually prohibited by administrative action of the Kansas Speaker of the House.
Dark money: Politically active nonprofits, often established as 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, are increasingly infiltrating and influencing the American political system. Contributions from these groups are often referred to as “dark money” since many of these organizations are not required to disclose the source of their funding. These groups receive uncapped amounts of funding from corporations, individuals, and others without the transparency disclosures required of other types of politically active groups. Over the past two decades, political influence and spending by nonprofits has drastically increased. In the 2006 election cycle, spending by these organizations totaled less than $5.2 million while ten years later in the 2016 election these groups spent more than $238 million. Political spending by nondisclosure groups hit a record high of $312 million in the 2012 election.20 In 2016, California passed legislation clarifying existing rules on nonprofit use of public resources for campaign activities. The law, introduced by then Co-Chair of the California Millennial Caucus Assemblyman Evan Low (Calif.), requires strengthened penalties against nonprofits violating the law and increased transparency rules for certain publicly funded nonprofit organizations engaging in political campaigns.
The revolving door: Often referred to as the “revolving door,” state legislatures are regulating the practice of former elected officials leaving public service and becoming lobbyists. The Maryland Public Integrity Act of 2017 revised regulations including a waiting period before former elected officials can participate in lobbying activities, penalties for the bribery of public officials, and a redefined list of activities considered lobbying. The Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency, and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014, sponsored by DRTF Member Representative Warwick Sabin (Ark.), prohibits members of the legislature and elected constitutional officers from registering as lobbyists in the two years immediately following their time in office.
Term limits: Term limits are often used to hold government institutions and elected officials accountable by ensuring a continuous renewal of ideas and fresh perspectives while limiting the opportunity for job apathy. In 2014, DRTF Member Representative Warwick Sabin (Ark.) sponsored legislation establishing term limits for members of the Arkansas General Assembly. In Georgia, DRTF Member Representative Michael Caldwell (Ga.) along with Georgia Future Caucus member Representative John Pezold sponsored legislation creating term limits for members of the Georgia General Assembly. “I want to make transparency the norm in Georgia, both during campaign season and the legislative session. I’ve led the charge for legislative term limits and I am holding myself accountable to that by ending my tenure next year” says Caldwell.
Online political spending disclosures: From voter persuasion to voter suppression, America’s elections are influenced by digital advertisements more than ever before. Without the disclosure of the sources creating and supporting online ads, the American public is left with little to no knowledge of the origin of the content they view online. Congress, state legislatures, and social media companies are beginning to address this gap in transparency by introducing regulations and requirements similar to those in place for print, television, and radio political advertisements. The Honest Ads Act, co-sponsored by more than 20 members of congress including MAP’s Congressional Future Caucus members Representatives Costello, Curbelo, Gallagher, and Kilmer, aims to implement federal standards for online advertisements. The bill expands the criteria of electioneering communication to include paid political advertisements, requires major internet platforms to maintain a public database of communications purchased for more than $500, and mandates online platforms to make efforts to ban foreign actors from purchasing political ads.21
With legislation passed in July of 2018, Maryland is the first state to require social media platforms to track political ads, maintain records of ads, and keep a record of targeted users.22 Similar to regulations for television ads, the law requires social media platforms and newspapers to publicly disclose information on the purchaser of ads, who the advertisement benefits, and the amount of money spent on the advertisement. Versions of the Maryland legislation are projected to appear across the country in upcoming state legislative sessions. Social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, are taking matters into their own hands by introducing self-imposed regulations for political advertisements on their sites.