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Glover campaign finance travails show need for reform

The gamey smell one might have detected around Shreveport mayoral politics came from the campaign finance reports of Mayor Cedric Glover, as revealed in a Shreveport Times article. It just provides more evidence about why the system needs drastic reform, as in getting rid of most of it.

The Times piece highlighted a number of questionable entries in Glover’s reports – missing information, changed names, limits being exceeded, large donations coming from individuals that don’t seem to be in much position to make them or would seem to have any interest in the contest. Glover maintains that his campaign tries not to accept illegal donations but if they look legitimate he’s not going to question them, and he said it tries to be as accurate as possible in record-keeping.

While some of these appear very questionable, Glover does have a point. Unless there seems something very obviously wrong, campaigns are under no obligation to refuse a donation and have little incentive to do anything but this legal minimum in ascertaining the legitimacy of a donation. Further, checking in detail all reports not only is not a required function of the state’s Ethics Administration Program, but also it would have just a tiny fraction of the resources to do this in any effective way. Instead, historically all campaign finance regulations everywhere have relied upon a political solution; that watchdog interests like the media and political adversaries such as opponent’s campaigns or political parties police disclosure forms.

Transparency in these matters is highly desirable, but, particularly since major reforms in this area swept the country in the 1970s, at the same time two things have become evident as a result of this heightened disclosure. First, it has created a host of ancillary problems as it has made campaigning far more difficult in terms of record-keeping, time devoted to fundraising, and made them seem more endless and crass because many politicians constantly must keep sticking their hands to raise funds in these circumscribed amounts. Second, it does not prevent gaming the system, nor much money being spent on behalf of campaigns with even less transparency

A good Louisiana case in point about both concerns the recent lieutenant governor campaign of Carolyn Fayard. While there were obvious minor errors here and there in her filings, the major alarm arose when it seemed that a few individuals connected to her gave large amounts of money to the state Democrat financing arm, and then the PAC turned around and gave almost equally-large donations to her campaign. On the surface, it appeared to be a way of dodging restrictions on individual donations to her campaign by her wealthy family and their friends/colleagues/supporters – but it all was perfectly legal, as they had no legal position in or connection to the state party.

As obnoxious as that seems, the system still worked in one way – keen observers took her reported finances and spelled out this allegedly blatant effort of circumventing limits. The public did find out and it may have affected the election as some voters may have rejected her candidacy on having the perception she was trying to do an end run around the spirit of donation restrictions in an attempt to “buy” victory. This points to the solution to incidents like that and related to Glover’s candidacy.

Simply, drop any restrictions on donations whatsoever, but make sure they are fully reported and in detail. As was the case decades ago, allow anybody to give any amount (although limited to U.S. citizens), but make the campaigns criminally responsible for ensuring the reported information is correct, and report large donations immediately, like within three days of receipt (and allow none within the last week of the campaign).

This would have several salutary effects. Independent expenditures, which are much less transparent in terms of sources of funds, would drop dramatically. Gamesmanship for the most part would cease. Campaigns would have the incentive and ability to police their own receipts, as well as their opponents’. Candidates would not have to engage in tremendous fundraising activities and might actually use the time saved to address issues. The public would quickly be able to discover who the fat cat donors are, and draw their own conclusions about whether that candidate would become too beholden to these interests.

While the appearance of honesty in elections is good, decades of political science research has shown that seldom does money buy votes of politicians, for a number of reasons. And having limits on individual donations would not slow that down much anyway, given the gamesmanship and independent expenditure avenues present. Plus, the present limits do nothing to curtail spending by wealthy candidates who self-finance their own campaigns. In the end, there’s more transparency to no limits than in dealing with behavior to try to obscure them.

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