Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.
“Show me the money.” It’s not just a line from the 1996 “Jerry Maguire” movie. It applies to our politics, too.
Last week, all political campaigns in Delaware were required to disclose their campaign finance reports. Those reports — made public just three times a year — show who is funding any given campaign and, in turn, how campaigns are spending that money to influence our vote.
Additionally, political insiders use the reports to evaluate a candidate’s viability and chances of victory in November. A strong fundraising machine can help propel a campaign to success. A poor showing of fundraising for a candidate can be a nail in the coffin of her campaign, regardless of the quality of candidate she may be, her experience or how well she represents the community.
This dynamic creates an environment that encourages candidates to prioritize fundraising, sacrificing time with voters to spend time dialing for dollars from big-money donors.
Consequently, elected officials are incentivized to devote their time and energy to keeping donors happy, if they want to keep their jobs. That’s why, as studies show, elected officials are more likely to act in accordance with donors than with their own constituents whose voices they ran to represent.
Knowing who has donated to a campaign can provide insight into a candidate’s agenda. If a candidate receives a lot of money from police unions, that says one thing. If they receive a lot of money from teachers’ unions, that says something else.
Last week, when candidates running in Delaware’s primary election had to release their campaign finance reports to the public, it was the first time all year that voters have been able to learn the names of donors. That’s because candidates are only required to file campaign finance reports on the last day of the calendar year and then 30 days and eight days before an election. So for most of the election season, people have to wonder who’s funding whom.
Right now, there are two commonsense ways in which campaign finance reporting could be strengthened in Delaware — requiring candidates to disclose donor names every quarter and requiring donors to disclose their employer and occupation.
First, Delaware voters would be better served by quarterly reporting. Until Aug. 16, voters had no way of knowing who is funding the candidates running in the Delaware primary. That does not leave much time for information to be publicized. Most people don’t look at campaign finance reports. They rely on others to tell them what they need to know about candidate funding.
Thirty days does not leave much time for that information to be disseminated — or for voters to ask candidates questions about their financial backing. It allows candidates to keep their voters in the dark and avoid public scrutiny — the entire purpose of our campaigns. Quarterly reporting would increase transparency and help voters make sound judgments when they go to the polls.
In addition, quarterly reporting would level the playing field by requiring all candidates, not just those running in the primary, to disclose their funders. To use an example from my own district — Senate District 6 down in Sussex — voters now know who is funding Democrats Russ Huxtable and Jack Bucchioni because they are in a primary race, but voters have no way of knowing who is funding Republican Steve Smyk because he has no primary opponent. And that gives Rep. Smyk an unfair advantage. Similarly, in Representative District 4, Republicans Bradley Layfield and Jeff Hilovsky had to reveal their donors last week, but the Democratic candidate Keegan Worley did not, since he does not have a primary opponent. There should be a level playing field for all candidates — regardless of party or opponent — when it comes to disclosing key information to the public.
Second, we should strengthen campaign finance reporting by requiring donors to state candidates to disclose their employer and occupation, information currently required from donors to federal candidates. That additional information would greatly increase voter knowledge.
Right now, voters can easily see if the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, the Delaware State Education Association or the Delaware Association of REALTORS is donating to candidates, but they cannot see how many individual police officers, public school teachers or Realtors are donating. If a particular candidate has an inordinate number of donations from people in a particular industry, that helps voters understand what that person’s campaign is about.
Requiring donors to reveal their employer and occupation would also help decrease fraud. Case in point: Back in 2011, Christopher Tigani circumvented contribution limits by having his employees donate money to his preferred candidates and then reimbursing them. While Tigani’s crimes were ultimately discovered and punished, it would have been easier to detect them had donors been required to state their employer. We shouldn’t have to wait for a candidate to break a law to hold him accountable — or to proactively fix the law before it’s broken. A huge number of contributions from Tigani employees, particularly those in low-paying occupations, would have immediately raised a red flag.
Earlier this year, a bill was filed that would have required donors to disclose employer and occupation. The bill, House Bill 366, had bipartisan sponsorship — with Republicans Bryan Shupe of Milford and Mike Smith of Pike Creek joining Democrats Eric Morrison of Glasgow, Ed Osienski of Newark and others as sponsors — but, sadly, the bill died in the House Administration Committee.
We urge state lawmakers to strengthen and improve disclosure of campaign financing to deliver the utmost transparency to the voters.
Delaware voters deserve to know who is funding the candidates who are running to represent them in Dover, so they can better control the forces that govern their lives. Show us the money.
Editor’s note: Campaign finance reports can be found on the Delaware Campaign Finance Reporting System can be found at https://cfrs.elections.delaware.gov/Public/ViewFiledReports.
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