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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ben Stuckart: Campaign finance transparency is essential to democracy

Ben Stuckart

Democracy demands transparency. Democracy thrives on participation. Despite the thousands of dollars spent on campaigns and independent expenditures, most Spokane voters continue to skip municipal elections, and most Spokane voters have no way of knowing who is paying for the barrage of campaign attack ads.

The flawed Citizens United Supreme Court decision and loopholes in current campaign finance law have enabled cloaking of campaign contributions. Groups like Better Spokane exist to mask political activity. Better Spokane uses its nonprofit status to hide the identities of individuals and companies that spend thousands of dollars to fund attack ads against Spokane citizens seeking public office. In 2017, Better Spokane contracted with Cambridge Analytica (Steve Bannon- and Michael Flynn-backed data mining company) to run nasty ads against council member Breean Beggs. Fortunately, Spokane voters saw through these ads. But our citizens still deserve to know who funds these nonprofits participating in our elections. The Spokane City Council adopted the Fair Elections Ordinance on December 18. The ordinance is intended to unmask these hidden donors.

The Fair Elections Ordinance, with support from groups like the League of Women Voters, is a Spokane effort to strengthen democracy and bring transparency back to local elections, thus empowering Spokane voters to make informed choices. This ordinance includes other common-sense reforms such as reducing the contribution limit and shortening the fundraising cycle, banning contributions from corporations receiving large city contracts, demanding certification from contributing corporations that they are not foreign owned, and requiring true disclosure of contributors making independent expenditures.

The average campaign contribution for Spokane City Council races continues to rise, while the most recurring contribution remains at $50. The ever-increasing state contribution limits, combined with major donors willing to give maximum donations, continually decrease the trust and influence of those who make smaller donations. Reliance on large donors makes interest groups, like Better Spokane and wealthy individuals seeking political favors, incredibly influential. The Fair Elections Ordinance reduces contribution limits; brings all entities, including political parties, under the same limits; and shortens the fundraising cycle.

Corporations doing business with the city have received over $116 million in contracts while donating $88,000 to current elected officials. I have never seen a contract steered toward an organization, but I am fully aware that the perception of corruption exists. In fact, the opponents of an elected official seeking re-election in the last cycle used a false allegation of quid pro quo corruption. The Fair Election Ordinance prohibits political contributions by city contractors who receive contracts at a certain dollar threshold. Opponents to this provision try to equate corporations who receive taxpayer-funded contracts with public sector unions who must mandatorily bargain with the city for wages and benefits. This is an inaccurate comparison. Having representative police officers bargain with the city for better sick leave policies is not the same under federal or state law as a corporation seeking a $5 million dollar contract.

When political action committees make independent expenditures state law requires them to disclose their top five contributors, which they do. But those contributors are typically disclosed as other PACs. For a hypothetical example, here are the highest contributors to Citizens for a Brighter Tomorrow:

  • Citizens for a Better Future PAC
  • Citizens for a Brighter Future PAC
  • Citizens for a Bigger Future PAC
  • Citizens for a Brilliant Future PAC
  • Citizens for a Blissful Future PAC

The Citizens for a Brighter Tomorrow PAC then created an attack ad that claimed a candidate desired to raise your internet bill by enacting unnecessary regulations on internet service providers. It’s a strong message, yet you would have no idea who was behind that assertion. You have no context. Now imagine if that ad stated: “Paid for by Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.” This would establish a different context as the contributors are no longer cloaked under a “parent” contributor. Transparency matters.

Changes such as those proposed in the Fair Elections Ordinance will draw ire from status quo groups like Better Spokane. However, the integrity of our elections is worth saving. The gaps in our campaign finance system need closing. Citizens deserve a transparent political system that values participation. The Fair Elections Ordinance is a step in the right direction.

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