Winning elections, especially above the local level, is about money — always has been, always will be. For presidential campaigns we’ve experimented with public financing and learned that it doesn’t work for the top candidates. No one bothers to try below that level.
Instead, we’ve focused on campaign finance laws with limited success. Our efforts have proven mainly that people with lots of money can buy political influence. The candidates know they need the money to be successful, and the good ones learn quickly where to find it.
Make no mistake, that system influences how the winning candidates perform when in office, at least if they want to run for office again.
When you’re running for a state office, you can’t shake enough hands, kiss enough babies or give enough brilliant speeches to win. You’ve got to have television advertising, public relations consultants, lots of signs, billboards and other slick campaign materials, etc.
The salary of a state senator is just under $16,000, plus expenses, and you can’t finance a contested election for that. Arkansas’ governor makes less than $90,000 a year, but to get elected our next one will have to raise dollars in seven figures.
Candidates depend on campaign contributions, which we’ve tried to limit especially as to the contributors. But that has led only to the formation of shadowy political action committees that spend freely on mud-slinging to get their favored candidates elected.
It’s disappointing but not surprising to see political figures like state Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr get in trouble over campaign financing. The temptation has always been there, the chances of getting exposed slim.
Campaign finance laws on the state and federal levels are failing.
In Arkansas we require candidates for public office to file statements of disclosure and then basically trust them to do so honestly. We have formed an Ethics Commission, investing it with the power to investigate all sorts of ethics violations, including those dealing with campaign finance. But we’ve given it only nine staff members.
The result is that candidates can file their required reports (or not — many don’t bother) with little expectation that anybody will ever read them. Even their opponents often don’t see the value when the election is over.
The idea behind Arkansas’ system is that disclosure will keep the candidates honest. However, few of the reports ever see the light of day.
As an editor, I urged my newspaper’s reporters to check campaign finance disclosure reports carefully, and for major races we often produced stories listing major contributors and expenses. Some reporters found good stories; others just hated to deal with numbers. Reports may be filled in by hand and hard to read; some are vague and-or inaccurate.
And there are a lot of reports. Bookout filed 13 documents in 2012; the basic campaign report is nine pages long. Since 2006 he has filed 154 financial disclosure documents, and he has never had a contested race.
Last year, perhaps out of habit, I checked campaign finance reports before the general election for all contested legislative races in Northeast Arkansas. Typically, I didn’t check candidates without an opponent since there isn’t much news there. That’s obviously something we must rethink.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette frequently has campaign finance listings for statewide races covering several pages. Arkansas has only 29 dailies. Even if all of them reported faithfully on campaign finance, that would cover less than half the state. Few weekly newspapers have shown much interest in such reporting.
That’s disclosure, but it’s not enforcement.
Citizens must help with disclosure. Legislators are not about to appropriate more money to the Ethics Commission to investigate their own political activities.
With online technology anyone can now see the reports filed by candidates for state offices — from legislators to prosecutors and judges to the constitutional officers. Candidates for local offices file locally, and few of those are available online.
If you want to see, for example, the filings of a certain legislator or legislative candidate, just go to the Arkansas secretary of state’s Web site — www.sos.arkansas.gov. Click on Elections, then on Financial Disclosure and finally on Search Financial Disclosure Reports.
That gets you to a search form, where you type in the name of the candidate. Use the last name only, which will bring up a list of people with that last name. Otherwise, you may not get all the reports because some may be filed under his full name, others under only first and last. You can also narrow the search as to the filing period. If not, you get a list of every report filed by that person since the secretary of state created this online database.
Remember, a candidate only has to file in certain periods, generally when he or she has had total contributions or expenses exceeding $500 for that period.
My suggestion to make the process more effective is, first, to simplify and streamline it. The Election Commission manual explaining the process covers 44 pages of small type, much of it in legal language. Then require that each report be published promptly in a daily or weekly newspaper as a legal notice.
That way everything gets disclosed, and you’ll find the candidates becoming much more thorough and honest.
Surely, these reports are at least as important as foreclosure notices.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.