A Perspective on Transparency by Joshua Marshall


In May, I started an internship with Trailblazers Political Action Committee, a group in the Twin Tiers of New York and Pennsylvania dedicated to transparency in politics and bringing power back to the voters. TPAC’s goal is to make government more open, and to have elected officials indebted to their constituents more than anyone else.

We already had our paperwork figured out for New York, my job was to figure out how to do the same for Pennsylvania and eventually for the other 48 states. While researching how to report our finances to PA, I discovered it is that it’s a real pain in the neck to be transparent in local politics.

Believe it or not, Pennsylvania campaign finance law is not as clear as day. I ended up calling the Pennsylvania Department of State, asking “what does a PAC already registered in New York have to do in order to support candidates for local and county elections in PA?” The woman on the phone didn’t have an answer, which concerned me. How does the State Department, the state governing body in charge of elections and campaign finances, not have an answer at the ready about out of state PACs involvement in their elections? Seems like something that might concern them.

She directed me to the individual boards of elections in the counties in which we intend to support candidates. So, I called a county board of elections official and asked the same question. Her response concerned me even more, “A New York PAC supporting PA candidates? Why the heck would you want to do that?”

I was disconcerted. Unfortunately, she also didn’t have an answer for me either. All we wanted to do was walk our own talk and transparently report our finances to them, but it just wasn’t working. Only after consulting with an election lawyer in Pennsylvania, we finally got our answer. We had to register as a totally separate Pennsylvania PAC. Great! Then I started to look at other states. The theme that kept coming up in this research was that it would be much easier to operate in such a way that does not require us to disclose our expenditures to these states.

After reviewing how to move a state PAC to other states, I found an interesting rule in Wisconsin, as well as other states. Aside from some really great cheese, the Badger State is also home to some wacky campaign finance laws.

If the PAC (or an individual) spends more than 50% of its money outside Wisconsin, as an OUT OF STATE PAC, we wouldn’t have to report a single cent to the state of Wisconsin. What Wisconsin is saying here is that they have no interest in tracking money pouring into their local elections, as long as there’s bigger money elsewhere.

Now, Wisconsin does have campaign finance limits on PAC contributions directly to candidates, but none for political parties, legislative campaign committees or ballot measures. But that means I can spend a billion dollars on Wisconsin elections, and a billion dollars and one cent in other states without reporting anything to Wisconsin. This is a massive loophole for dark money. If I, a senior in college, can find a way to hide a billion dollars in Wisconsin, just imagine what people who actually have that money are up to.

In completing this research, I compiled a list of all of the ways I found that we could legally support candidates in other states. The vast majority of those options ended with me saying “though this is directly contrary to Trailblazers PAC’s transparency goals.” It’s human nature to want to take the easiest route, but this is not an option for a PAC founded on transparency when the easy route means becoming dark money.

It shouldn’t be harder to be transparent than it is to be dark money. The law should not discourage honesty. You should know who your leaders are indebted to.

One comment on “A Perspective on Transparency by Joshua Marshall

  1. December 7, 2017 Aging Optimist

    Interesting sleuthing, Josh. It’s great that Millenial college students take the initiative to dig into this sort of anomaly. Or is it an anomaly? It would be good to know if these sorts of state level rules result from legislation drafted and shared by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and when they can into effect. Perhaps someone has already done this analysis. Perhaps we can turn around the old notion that bad money drives out good. Thanks for this work and for making others aware.

    Reply

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