We have long been advocates for transparency in elections, rather than tedious and ineffective limits on donations. When laws limit how much someone can contribute to a campaign or how much a candidate can spend, the advantage always goes to the incumbent. In elections, money equals exposure. Information, on the other hand, helps voters enter polling booths fully informed.
But in Utah, the public has neither transparency nor limits.
The Center for Governmental Studies, together with the UCLA Law School, the California Voter Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently ranked states according to how well their campaign disclosure laws inform and protect the public. Utah came in 45th of the 50 states and earned an F grade.
Those results shouldn't surprise anyone. Long editorials have been written on this page about shortcomings in Utah's disclosure laws, as well as laws governing how campaign funds may be used. Politicians can, and often do, use leftover campaign funds for personal expenses. The state's online registry of donations is cumbersome and difficult to search. The same can be said for lobbyist expense reports, which are fairly useless anyway because of large built-in loopholes in reporting requirements (any gift under $50 is exempt from reporting, and lobbyists often split costs to avoid the limit).
In addition, different reporting deadlines allow candidates to receive donations from political action committees without those committees having to report who originally gave the money until after conventions and primary elections. People also can donate to campaigns at the last minute without their names becoming public before elections.
But one of the most maddening problems illuminated in the report involves the identities of donors. In Utah, anyone may donate to a candidate without identifying his or her employer or occupation. Most states, as well as the federal government, require such information.
The reason this information should be reported is simple. Voters need to know where a candidate gets his or her support. Often, support comes from special interests or businesses that hope to buy influence for a particular piece of legislation. Some employers have been known to give bonuses to employees with express instructions to give the money to a candidate, thus hiding the company's involvement.
With candidates, it's always difficult to know whether a campaign donation influenced a vote, or whether a candidate's heartfelt votes influenced a donation. But that conundrum becomes somewhat irrelevant if voters have full access to information that at least informs them as to where a candidate's support base lies.
Lawmakers need to demonstrate a commitment to transparent government by changing these laws.