Guest Comment: Campaign Finance Reporting Needs More Transparency

By Claire Snyder-Hall

Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive Director of Common Cause Delaware.

“Show me the money.” This isn’t just a line from the 1996 movie “Jerry Maguire”. This also applies to our policy.

Last week, all political campaigns in Delaware were required to disclose their campaign finance reports. These reports – released only three times a year – show who is funding a given campaign and, in turn, how campaigns are spending that money to influence our vote.

Additionally, political insiders use the reports to gauge a candidate’s viability and chances of victory in November. A powerful fundraising machine can help propel a campaign to success. Poor fundraising for a candidate can be a nail in the coffin of her campaign, regardless of how good a candidate she is, her experience or her ability to represent the community.

This dynamic creates an environment that encourages candidates to prioritize fundraising, sacrificing time with voters to spend time dialing in dollars from big donors.

Therefore, elected officials are encouraged to devote their time and energy to the satisfaction of donors, if they want to keep their jobs. This is why, as studies show, elected officials are more likely to act in agreement with donors than with their own constituents whom they have run to represent.

Knowing who donated to a campaign can provide insight into a candidate’s agenda. If a candidate gets a lot of money from police unions, that means one thing. If they get a lot of money from teachers’ unions, that means something else.

Last week, when candidates in Delaware’s primary elections had to release their campaign finance reports, it was the first time this year that voters could learn the names of donors. This is because candidates are only required to file campaign finance returns on the last day of the calendar year, then 30 days and eight days before an election. So for most of the election season, people have to wonder who is funding whom.

Currently, there are two sensible ways to strengthen campaign finance reporting in Delaware: require candidates to disclose donor names quarterly and require donors to disclose their employer and occupation.

First, Delaware voters would be better served by quarterly reports. Until Aug. 16, voters had no way of knowing who is funding Delaware primary candidates. This does not leave much time for the information to be made public. 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 doesn’t leave much time for this information to get out — or for voters to ask candidates questions about their financial support. This allows candidates to keep their constituents in the dark and avoid public scrutiny – the whole goal of our campaigns. Quarterly reports would increase transparency and help voters make informed decisions when they go to the polls.

Also, quarterly reporting would level the playing field by requiring all candidates, not just those running for the primary, to disclose their funders. To use an example from my own district – Senate District 6 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 find out who is funding Republican Steve Smyk because he has no main 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 Democratic candidate Keegan Worley did not, since he has no 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 of donors to federal candidates. This additional information would greatly increase voter knowledge.

Right now, voters can easily see if the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, Delaware State Education Association, or Delaware Association of REALTORS donates to candidates, but they can’t see how many police officers, school teachers public schools or real estate agents make donations. If a particular candidate receives an inordinate number of donations from people in a particular area, it helps voters understand what that person’s campaign is all about.

Requiring donors to reveal their employer and occupation would also help reduce fraud. Case in point: In 2011, Christopher Tigani circumvented contribution limits by asking his employees to donate money to his favorite candidates and then paying them back. Although Tigani’s crimes were eventually discovered and punished, it would have been easier to detect them if the donors had been required to declare their employer. We shouldn’t have to wait for a candidate to break a law to hold them accountable – or to proactively fix the law before it’s broken. A large number of contributions from Tigani employees, especially those in low-wage professions, would have immediately raised alarm bells.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced that would have required donors to disclose their 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, unfortunately, the bill died in the administration of the House. Committee.

We urge state legislators to strengthen and improve campaign finance disclosure to provide the greatest transparency to voters.

Delaware voters deserve to know who funds the candidates 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 are available on the Delaware Campaign Finance Reporting System. at https://cfrs.elections.delaware.gov/Public/ViewFiledReports.