By Mac Warner
WV Secretary of State
Let the sunlight shine into political campaigns in West Virginia
Transparency is the key component of good campaign finance policy. As we progress through the 21st Century, easily accessible and complete information is not only possible, it’s absolutely necessary for citizens to stay informed on how government is spending tax dollars, conducting business and passing laws. Likewise, the public has an absolute right to know who is funding the speech related to candidates and issues in elections.
By shedding light on government agencies’ and public officials’ activities, “sunshine laws” deter bad actors from taking advantage of loopholes and blind spots in the law. Similarly, shining light on campaign finances deters candidates and organizations from acting against the public’s best interest. Since taking office in 2017, I have been committed to increasing transparency in the elections process. For example, just last year the Elections Division rolled out a new online campaign finance reporting system. Now, and easier than ever before, our citizens, media, candidates, etc. can access campaign finance reports from anywhere in the world with just a few clicks and an internet connection.
However, without properly updated laws that clarify who must disclose campaign finances in West Virginia and what information must be provided to the citizens, the new easy-to-use system becomes irrelevant. So I applaud the passage of the Legislature’s campaign finance transparency bill, which closes many loopholes that exist in current campaign finance laws. By closing those loopholes and making enhancements, transparency increases to the public with easy, accurate and complete access to required campaign finance information of additional candidates and committees. At the core of the enhancements in the bill is our citizens’ ability to get educated on candidates and issues before each election, which provides the best opportunity to make informed choices on election day.
It has been disappointing to see opponents of the campaign finance transparency bill disregard the new safeguards and transparency requirements in this legislation that address spending funded by unknown sources. Without these necessary enhancements, West Virginia will be left behind in categories such as electronic disclosure of third parties and public access to information about out-of-state organizations.
Under the campaign finance transparency reform bill, additional “dark money” will be brought into the sunlight and disclosed. Contribution levels will reflect lower limits than our surrounding states, and will still be 14th lowest in the nation for statewide candidates. Many of the amendments that failed during session contained provisions that potentially violate the First Amendment’s free speech and freedom of association protections. Thankfully, our lawmakers considered the full text of the bill and understood that the vast transparency and disclosure improvements will greatly benefit the public.
The public has a right to know the entirety of the campaign finance transparency reforms before forming an opinion. Therefore, here is a brief summary of just some of the disclosure and transparency enhancements provided in Senate Bill 622:
- Removes the major loophole for federal political action committees (PACs) by requiring all PACs to file reports electronically on the Secretary of State’s public website. Currently, PACs registered at the federal level are not required to file anything in West Virginia
- Eliminates the major loophole of third party independent expenditures, now requiring all independent expenditures to be disclosed electronically for the public’s viewing
- Strengthens and clarifies the laws on organizations, such as revising the definition of a “Political Action Committee” which are required to disclose donors and other campaign finance information
- Creates a state-level prohibition of foreign nationals from contributing to campaigns
- Online filing for all PACs will be completely searchable (contributions, donors, expenditures, etc.). Currently, PACs can simply submit paper reports of their finances which require manual review to learn about their contributions, donors and expenditures
- Mandates fines for late campaign finance report filers, which must be paid by the candidate personally
- Mandates that a list of late report filers must be posted on the Secretary of State’s website so the public knows who is delinquent in their disclosures
- Restructures the campaign finance report filing calendar, which includes four additional reports so candidates and committees cannot go for nearly a year without disclosing their campaign finances during off-year periods
The strengthening of public disclosure and transparency in the campaign finance transparency reform bill are long overdue upgrades for West Virginia’s campaign finance laws. West Virginians should have a right to access and view as many details as possible that surround political spending, especially by outside groups. The laws currently in effect give certain outside groups a way to avoid filing reports in West Virginia. It is important for voters to know who is spending money to influence elections in our state, and the campaign finance transparency reform bill closes most of these loopholes without triggering a challenge under the First Amendment.
Our citizens deserve the full story on every law that affects us, and especially those that involve elections. What I’ve read recently about the campaign finance transparency reform bill covers just a small section of the bill, and our citizens should have all the facts before forming an opinion. I’m hopeful that readers will consider this information before deciding about these campaign finance transparency reforms. And don’t just take my word for it. I encourage everyone to read SB 622 itself to really see what lengths our Legislature has taken to shine light on campaign finances in West Virginia.
— Mac Warner is West Virginia’s Secretary of State. He took office on January 16, 2017.