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Differences over political campaign finance break down into three general categories: (a) how much money, in total, influences election outcomes, (b) how many dollars individual people or organizations should be able to use to sway voters and (c) who, precisely, the donors are.
The U.S. Supreme Court essentially answered the first two questions two years ago, at least regarding federal office campaigns. Its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision said pretty much that the sky’s the limit regarding money flowing into elections. A report last week titled “Auctioning Democracy: The Rise of Super PACS and the 2012 Election” and circulated by the NHPIRG Education Fund spells out the consequences.
But a chapter of the court ruling that was little noticed two years ago contained a constructive injunction about the third topic of campaign finance — the identification of donors. It called for disclosure with this language: “(T)ransparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
The matter of public disclosure is immediately relevant in the New Hampshire Legislature, because the only current bill concerning money in politics that stands a chance of passage in Concord this year is one that would tighten up existing rules regarding the public identification of donors to political campaigns.
House Bill 1704 would speed up the reporting of donors’ names so that voters could get a sense of who was funneling cash to this or that campaign before going to the polls. Under current law, according to Rep. Shaun Doherty, a Republican from Pelham who sponsored the bill, the public can go nearly 18 months before getting a full picture of where a politician’s campaign money came from. Doherty’s bill would speed up that reporting considerably, and that’s good.
Granted, HB 1704 has a less appealing component. It would also raise the total sum that an individual or organization can legally give to the three phases of a political campaign in the state — the exploratory period, the primary election and the general election — from the current $7,000 to $15,000.
That element pollutes the bill, but not enough to justify its defeat. There may come a time when the climate for far-reaching campaign finance reform in New Hampshire will improve — to allow for public funding, for example — but beefier rules on disclosure shouldn’t have to wait until then.
In fact, with a bit more oomph, disclosure rules could be strengthened beyond what HB 1704 currently calls for — to require that donors’ names be posted in campaign literature and advertisements, and not merely be cited in financial reports to state elections officials that most members of the public don’t normally read. Reformers take note.
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