Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 21, 2013

Forum: State gets ‘F’ for hidden campaign money

By Denise Roth Barber
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Just how much money was spent independently of candidates on elections for Michigan state office last year? The answer remains elusive, not just in Michigan, but in a majority of states, according to a recent assessment of disclosure laws by the National Institute on Money In State Politics (www.FollowTheMoney.org). The Institute’s new Scorecard: Essential Disclosure Requirements for Independent Spending, 2013 shows the dismal results.

Michigan is among 26 states cited in the report that received an “F” for its lax disclosure requirements around independent spending.

There are two types of this spending: independent expenditures are those communications that expressly urge the voter to vote for or against a candidate; and electioneering communications are those that target a candidate during an election but stop just short of telling voters how to vote. Both forms of spending are done independently of the candidates.

Michigan does very well in its disclosure requirements of independent expenditures. Not only is the spending reported, but the targets are also disclosed, along with the position (if the spending was made in support of or opposition to the target). This is more than can be said of 13 states that require little to no disclosure of this form of spending.

The state’s “F” was earned, however, by its failure to require any disclosure of money spent on electioneering communications - those that target a candidate during an election but stop just short of urging voters how to vote. Without this information reported, it is impossible to know how much money is spent by groups that operate independently of the candidates.

The lack of disclosure is due to the state’s failure to update a 2004 decision by the Michigan Department of State that says such communications, aka “Issue advocacy,” are not required to be reported.

While the total amount spent independently on Michigan’s 2012 elections for state office will never be known, a Michigan Campaign Finance Network analysis of public files of the state’s TV broadcasters and cable systems reveals that at least $11 million of TV ads was spent on the Michigan Supreme Court elections. That’s a conservative figure at best, since it does not include money spent on radio buys, mailers, and other forms of communications.

Michigan is, unfortunately, not alone in this deficiency — 24 other states also do not require disclosure of electioneering communications.

In 2014, Michigan, along with a majority of states, will elect its governor and other major statewide offices. The Institute hopes that states will work hard to improve their disclosure requirements in advance so that the public will finally be able to know just how much money is being spent, and by whom, to influence the outcome of Michigan’s elections.

About the author: Denise Roth Barber has served as managing director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics since 2010. She has served as research director and a researcher. The Institute is the only nonpartisan, nonprofit organization revealing the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and public policy in all 50 states. On the web at: FollowTheMoney.org.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by emailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.