Op-ed: Proper campaign finance reform would be ‘golden’

While Citizens United amplified the megaphones of the very wealthy, fortunately it cannot stifle the voices of everyday people calling for a more transparent and ethical system in Delaware.

Did you know that U.S. politics plays by the golden rule? “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

That well-known quip originated in a “Wizard of Id” comic strip back in 1965, the same year that Americans’ trust in government started its precipitous decline.

Recently, that trust has reached historic lows. People no longer believe that those in government truly work for them. They suspect that those responsible for the public good actually serve the wealthy elites and powerful special interests who finance their political careers.

Public suspicion increased after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 ushered in an era of unlimited spending, as explained by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Equating the spending of money with the exercise of free speech, that decision now permits corporations and wealthy elites to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence politics, as long as they do not officially coordinate with candidates or political parties. That decision and other rulings have given rich business owners and their cronies a supersized influence on politics. Unfortunately, their financial machinations often remain hidden from voters, due to inadequate disclosure laws.

This big-money deluge has affected every state, including Delaware. To give just one example, a recent data analysis has documented that over half of all donations to members of the New Castle County Council come from big developers, their family members and their well-heeled bundlers. And, while technically legal, the supersized financial power of big developers remains largely hidden from view because Delaware’s campaign finance database does not provide voters the information they need to see the full picture.

While Citizens United amplified the megaphones of the very wealthy, fortunately it cannot stifle the voices of everyday people calling for a more transparent and ethical system in Delaware.

Delaware already has a database that lets voters see the contributions and expenditures of all candidates for public office. People can see when big development or real estate companies donate to campaigns. However, when they look at donations from individuals, voters have no way of discerning how many work for a big development company or real estate entity because Delaware does not require donors to disclose their employer and occupation. When people donate to federal candidates, they must disclose that information — and Delaware could easily require the same.

Voters would also benefit by more frequent campaign finance reporting. Right now, candidates are only required to file campaign finance reports at the end of the year, and 30 days and eight days before an election. And if a candidate has no opponent in the primary, they do not have to file the pre-primary reports. More frequent filing would greatly enhance the ability of voters to understand the monied interests behind campaigns. Adding quarterly reports to the current system would greatly enhance transparency. Plus, it would not create more work; it would just spread the work out.

In addition, the current campaign finance database should be updated to be more user-friendly. Just a quick glance at the Delaware Campaign Finance Reporting System homepage reveals a clunky interface and a search engine that is confusing and hard to use.

Lobbying constitutes another area where big money plays an outsized role in the First State. Currently, all “legislative agents” who lobby members of the General Assembly are required to register with Delaware’s Public Integrity Commission and report any contributions or gifts in excess of $50.

Those who lobby at lower levels of government are not held to the same standard, however. For example, those who seek to influence members of the New Castle County Council merely register with the clerk of the County Council, and they do not have to report the contributions and expenditures they make while lobbying.

Voters have a right to know the amount of money being spent to influence county-level decision-making about land use and other things, so lobbyists should disclose any contributions or gifts given to lawmakers. We could also strengthen oversight by requiring county-level lobbyists to register with the New Castle County Ethics Commission. Similar requirements should be implemented in the other two counties, as well.

Finally, we might consider curtailing the power of big money in a more robust way. Oakland, California, recently passed a package of reforms called “Measure W.” Modeled on a successful program in Seattle, Measure W includes an innovative program that aims to amplify community voices by providing four $25 vouchers to every eligible resident, so that they can contribute to candidate campaigns.

The program turns every household into a donor household, rendering them worthy of attention in the eyes of politicos, and it enables candidates with community roots, rather than wealthy patrons, to run viable campaigns. In order to accept the vouchers, candidates must agree to participate in public debates and submit to audits. Empowering small donors is one recommendation the Brennan Center makes to chip away at the legacy of Citizens United.

These small changes could have a huge impact. Restoring trust by strengthening transparency, ethics and accountability really would be golden.