Voters to Remain in Dark About Campaign Contributions

CARSON CITY – Nevadans who intend to vote early in the primary and general elections this year will likely find themselves in the dark on the question of who has contributed to the campaigns of the candidates.

Despite efforts in past legislative sessions to improve the transparency of campaign contributions received by candidates, lawmakers have failed to make meaningful reforms to the reporting process.

The 2009 Legislature failed to approve efforts by Secretary of State Ross Miller to improve the reporting process by requiring electronic filing of the campaign reports. Electronic reporting would allow the creation of a searchable database to analyze who is contributing and in what amounts to the candidates.

Mandating electronic reporting for most candidates was supported in the Assembly but was amended out of Assembly Bill 82 by the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee in the final days of the session.

A look through reports now on file with the secretary of state’s office show that many are hand-written and difficult to read.

Another proposal to make the information more voter-friendly by requiring earlier reporting also failed.

Miller had proposed last session that candidates report individual contributions in excess of $1,000 to his office within a few days of receipt starting 40 days before the primary and general elections. The information would then have been posted on the SOS website and available for voters to review before casting their ballots, especially those voting early, as nearly 60 percent did in the 2008 election.

For the primary, early voting begins May 22, but the campaign contribution and expense reports are not due until June 1. And because candidates can send in their reports by certified mail on the June 1 due date, the release of the information to the public can be delayed even further.

The same scenario will occur with the Nov. 2 general election, with the second round of reports due Oct. 26. Early voting begins Oct. 16.

The proposal – which also covered expenditures and multiple contributions from a single individual exceeding $1,000 – was discussed in committee but never actually made it into any version of AB82.

Miller said the campaign contribution and expense information available on his agency’s website consistently gets an F grade because of this lack of transparency.

The F grade was awarded in 2008 by the Campaign Disclosure Project in large part because the reports are not searchable.

“We need to put it into some type of format the public can use,” Miller said. “A 100-page handwritten report is not useful.”

Miller said he will try again to push for more transparency in 2011 if he is re-elected to another term as secretary of state.

In the meantime many voters will not have the information available this election year unless candidates take it upon themselves to voluntarily report their contributions on their own websites.

The 40th day before the June 8 primary is today.

Reactions from a handful of candidates on the idea of voluntary reporting vary; some say a voluntary posting of information is unworkable because it could give opponents an advantage if they did not participate as well. One lawmaker, however, suggested it could work to a candidate’s advantage.

Several other candidates contacted for the story did not return phone calls.

Miller, acknowledging that he has taken the lead on seeking reforms to the reporting process, said he will make his contributions public ahead of the general election on his website. Miller does not have a primary.

Miller said he will do so even though it may put him at a disadvantage by giving his opponents information about his campaign than he will not have from them. So starting 40 days before the general election, he will post all contributions in excess of $1,000 within 72 hours of receipt to his website for voters to view if they choose to do so.

“If it puts me at a disadvantage, we’ll see,” he said.

Republican governor candidate Mike Montandon said if elected to the job, he will push for reforms to make campaign reports more transparent for the public. Ironically, Montandon said he files his reports electronically in a format that would allow for searches. But the data is then converted into an unsearchable file for posting on the secretary of state’s website.

“This one is a slam dunk,” he said. “It’s common sense. I’m a freedom of speech person. I don’t believe there should be restrictions on who spends what on a campaign, but the information should be totally transparent.”

But Montandon said he would not post such data on his campaign website unless every candidate did the same, citing a disadvantage if his opponents could review his donor list without him having access to their information as well.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, one of three major GOP candidates seeking the governor’s seat, said he has no problems reporting his contributions, but questioned whether he would have the staff available to make such updates.

“We do not have individuals who are directed to work 100 percent of the time on the website or be data input people,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with openness.”

Democratic governor candidate Rory Reid would support more openness and transparency in the campaign contribution and expense reporting process, but he has no plans for early reporting in this election, said his spokesman Mike Trask. Reid has already put out a plan for changes he would make to ensure state government is more ethical and open, changes which he has already implemented as Clark County Commission chairman, he said.

“Reporting early would be problematic for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being the issue of fairness,” Trask said. “We’re going to file the report when we are legally required to do so as we are certain other candidates will do as well.”

Rob Lauer, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, said he supports reporting contribution information so voters can have access to it, but suggested the process needs to be ongoing so that the information does not generate undue momentum for those who receive a lot of financial support.

“I’m not sure I want to see campaign contribution reports affect the way people vote,” he said.

Rather than require reporting of large contributions beginning 40 days before an election, Lauer said transparency concerns could be addressed by requiring the information to be reported within 72 hours, regardless of when the money was received in an election cycle.

Ongoing contribution reporting would help get away from the “horse race” mentality, he said.

Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, said he has no problem with reporting his donations, but said for many legislative races the financial support is relatively modest.

“Most of my contributions are $100, $500 or $1,000,” he said. “You can look at my past reports to see who is contributing to my campaign.”

Stewart said Democrats get a lot of their money from labor unions, Republicans get a lot from the business community and the gaming industry supports candidates of both parties.

“There are no surprises, really,” he said.

Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, said he would like to see the secretary of state’s office set up a process where candidates could voluntarily report their contributions using the guidelines and have them posted on the SOS website.

Candidates who choose to voluntarily post their contribution information might get a favorable response from voters for making the information public, he said

“I don’t think it would put a candidate at a disadvantage,” Goedhart said. “Voters are tired of business as usual.”

Passing legislation to require the reporting of such information would be fine as well, he said. But in the meantime, there is no reason why candidates could not do so on their own.

“Anything that adds transparency would be fine with me,” he said.

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said he supports the earlier reporting language proposed by Miller in the 2009 session, but suggested a voluntary process whereby candidates would post the information on their own websites would not be practical. One candidate might post the information prominently while another would bury it on the website. It would also require voters to seek out each candidate’s website, he said.

An alternative would be to have the secretary of state’s office set up a system that would be uniform for candidates who wanted to provide the information. But it is unlikely that many candidates would voluntarily report because of a concern their opponents would not do the same, he said.

Transparency is critical but not likely to occur without legislation, Segerblom said.

The electronic filing requirement would not have been in place for this election cycle anyway. AB 82 was amended by the Assembly Elections, Procedures, Ethics and Constitutional Amendments Committee to have the requirement take effect in January of 2011.

AB82 passed the Assembly 23-18 on May 21 with the electronic filing requirement in place. It provided an exemption for a candidate who did not have access to a computer and limited the requirement to candidates who collected more than $10,000.

Stewart said he voted no on the bill because of other sections dealing with voter registration changes, not because of the electronic contribution reporting requirement.

But the bill, which contained numerous other provisions relating to election law, was then amended May 30 by the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee to delete the electronic reporting requirement. Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, made the motion to delete the provision. Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, voted no. Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, abstained, according to the committee minutes.

The bill then passed the Senate on a 16-5 vote.

Ultimately none of the provisions of AB82 survived because the Legislature ran out of time before taking final action on the measure.

Numerous state assembly and senate candidates contacted for their comments on the issue did not return calls.