Common Cause Official Discusses Campaign Financing, Ethics In Government At Thursday’s Legislative Preview

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison, right, discusses the issues at Thursday’s Legislative Preview in Fuller Lodge. Listening from left, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, Sen. Carlos Cisneros and Rep. Jim Smith. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Community members turn out for Thursday’s Legislative Preview in Fuller Lodge. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

STAFF REPORT

  • Editor’s Note: Read the discussion by Sen. Carlos Cisneros, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard and Rep. Jim Smith in Saturday’s edition of the Los Alamos Daily Post.

Education funding, voting rights and ethics and money in politics are among the issues discussed by officials at Thursday’s Legislative Preview in Fuller Lodge.

During the annual event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Los Alamos and the American Association of University women (AAUW), Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Los Alamos, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos and Rep. Jim Smith, R- Bernalillo each shared their views on the 2015 legislative session, which begins Jan. 20 and continues for 60 days. 

AAUW President Judy Prono moderated the discussion, which included questions from the audience.

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison also gave a presentation on campaign financing and ethics in government and touched on the follow points:

Priority legislation for Common Cause New Mexico (CCNM) in 2015:

  1. Our proposed disclosure bill will overhaul the current law to bring it in line with both recent constitutional rulings and modern campaign practices. It would compel public disclosure of information about the campaign spending of PACs and other non-candidate campaign participants without crossing constitutional boundaries established by the courts. The bill has passed the Senate three times (last two unanimously), as well as all House committees; simply requires independent groups to disclose contributions and expenditures as candidates and parties do now.
  • 87 percent of New Mexico voters support requiring that all large political contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs, non-profits or unions be made public
  • 79 percent of New Mexico voters support contribution limits for candidates
  1. New Mexico is one of only nine states without an ethics commission, and our proposed bill amends the constitution to create an Independent State Ethics Commission to oversee the conduct of state officers and employees, campaign finance reporting, government contractors and lobbyists. The commission would also serve as a resource for officials to get guidance on issues, provide ethics training and create best practices for all parties covered. The vast majority of elected officials in New Mexico are hard-working, ethical people who want the best for our state, and creating an independent ethics commission is a simple way to return voter trust to government.
  • 65 percent of voters think elected officials are more responsive to lobbyists than voters
  • 79 percent of voters believe corruption in New Mexico politics is a problem
  1. Allowing online voter registration (NOT online voting) modernizes our election system as the traditional voter registration methods are increasingly out-of-date with new technology. Online registration improves access; alleviates the burden for state employees who currently have to type in each hand written form they receive; will save the state untold dollars in staff time; and allows for “cleaner” voter rolls. Secretary of State Dianna Duran, as well as numerous non-profit organizations, supports online voter registration.

Data from December 2013 polling of registered New Mexico voters by Research and Polling, Inc. on money in politics in NM (paid for by CCNM)

Electoral Disclosure Bill Summary By Common Cause New Mexico:

I.  Two principal purposes

  • To restore the enforceability of the Campaign Reporting Act (CRA). Since the CRA was enacted, the courts have developed an extensive body of restrictions on the authority of governments to regulate campaign speech. Under these rules, several key provisions of the CRA have recently been invalidated by the courts, including most of the Act’s reporting requirement for PAC’s and other independent groups. The bill would rewrite the CRA to conform to current constitutional rules.
  • To adapt the CRA to modern methods of campaigning. When the CRA was enacted, candidates and political parties were virtually the only campaign participants. There are now numerous national and local independent groups participating in state elections in a variety of ways, ranging from campaign ads coordinated with candidates to an occasional ad mentioning a public official who is running for reelection.  The bill would expand the CRA to cover all these kinds of campaign activities in a constitutionally permissible way.

II. Defines or redefines several key terms, which are essential to understanding the bill’s provisions:

  • Advertisement: any communication referring to a candidate or ballot measure that is disseminated to more than 500 people except: (1) legitimate news stories or editorials; (2) internal communications sent only to the members or shareholders of a group or corporation; and (3) voter guides published by 501(c)(3) groups and similar kinds of neutral voter information.
  • Coordinated expenditure: an expenditure made by a non-candidate in cooperation or consultation with a candidate or political committee for an advertisement which either (1) expressly advocates election or defeat of a candidate, or (2) refers to a candidate and is disseminated to the electorate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election at which the candidate is on the ballot.
  • Independent expenditure: an expenditure, other than a coordinated expenditure, made by a non-candidate to pay for an advertisement, which either (1) expressly advocates election or defeat of a candidate or passage or defeat of a ballot measure, or (2) refers to a candidate or ballot measure and is disseminated to the electorate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election at which the candidate or ballot measure is on the ballot.
  • Political committee: a qualified political party, a group that has the primary purpose of contributing to candidates or making coordinated expenditures, or a group that has the primary purpose of making independent expenditures and has expended over $3,000 for that purpose in the preceding year. This represents a considerable narrowing of the definition of “political committee” in the current law, which purports to cover any person who spends over $500 for “influencing … an election.” This overbroad definition was the main feature of the law that motivated the courts to invalidate the CRA’s registration and reporting requirements for non-candidate groups.

III. Substantive Provisions

  • Coordinated expenditures as contributions. The bill treats coordinated expenditures as contributions to the candidate with whom they are coordinated. This means that the expenditure would have to be reported by the candidate as a contribution, and the amount of the expenditure could not exceed the candidate’s contribution limit.
  • Reporting by candidates and political committees. Except for the obligation to report coordinated expenditures, the bill leaves substantially unchanged the CRA’s current requirements for reporting and disclosure by candidates and political committees – although, as noted, the definition of “political committee” would be considerably narrowed by the bill.
  • Independent expenditure reporting. Under Section 1 of the bill, any person who makes an independent expenditure of $800 or more that is not otherwise required to be reported must report to the Secretary of State (1) the name of the sponsor and the amount and purpose of the expenditure; and (2) the names of the donors of all contributions over $200 to the sponsoring organization that were solicited or earmarked to make independent expenditures. In addition, for independent expenditures of over $3,000, the sponsoring organization must either (1) report the names of all contributors of over $5,000 to the organization; or (2) finance the expenditure from a segregated bank account that contains only individual donations earmarked for independent expenditures, and report the names of all contributors of over $200 to the account. Reports would have to be filed within three days of making an expenditure of less than $5,000 and within 24 hours of making an expenditure of $5,000 or more.
  • Disclaimers. Section 2 of the bill requires every person who makes a campaign expenditure, a coordinated expenditure or an independent expenditure of over $3,000 for an advertisement to include in the ad a statement of the sponsors’ names and contact information. This provision would replace the unconstitutionally overbroad disclaimer requirements of the current law, which would be repealed by the bill.
  • Changes in contribution limits. The current law imposes limits on the contributions that may be received from any one contributor during a primary election or general election for the office being sought. The bill would apply these limits to every primary or general election instead of merely the elections in which the candidate is running. The effect of this change would be to apply the same total contribution limits over a four-year cycle to candidates for four-year offices as are currently applied to candidates for two-year offices. Contribution limits for political committees would also apply to each primary and each general election.
  • Exemption from contribution limits. In accordance with recent court decisions, contributions to political committees that can only be used for independent expenditures – either because the committee makes only independent expenditures or because the contributions are deposited in a separate account that can only be used for that purpose – would be exempt from contribution limits. 
  • Increased civil penalties. The bill would increase, to $1,000 per violation and $20,000 total, the civil fines that may be imposed for violations of the CRA. The criminal penalties authorized by current law would remain unchanged.

Online Voter Registration:

As of June 2014, a total of 20 states offer online registration, another four states have passed legislation to create online voter registration systems, and three states also presently offer limited online voter registration.  Online voter registration is a method for New Mexico to expand the options available to eligible citizens and makes it easier for them to register to vote. Online registration also saves money by eliminating the cost of printing and postage of paper forms as well as time spent deciphering handwriting and potential for erroneous data entry from the forms.

Online voter registration follows the same process as traditional paper-based registration, but instead of filling out a paper application, the voter fills out a form via an Internet site, and that paperless form is submitted electronically to election officials. In most states the application is reviewed electronically; if the request is confirmed to be valid, the new registration is added to the state’s voter registration list.

Validation of submitted voter information is done by comparing the information on the online registration form against the information provided by the same individual when he or she received a driver’s license or other state-issued identification card. The signature already on record with the state becomes the signature on record for voting. When the information does not a match, the application is sent to officials for further review or action.

Unlike many election reforms, online registration has been championed in states controlled by both Democrats and

Republicans and is seen as a rare bipartisan election reform. Online voter registration first began in Arizona in 2002 and now accounts for over 70 percent of Arizona registrations.

Online systems are not equipped to register voters who do not have state-issued driver’s licenses or identification cards. Those voters, or any voters who care to, may still use a paper registration form.

Paperless voter registration is cost-effective and saves states millions of dollars each year:

  • It cost Arizona less than $130,000 and Washington just $279,000 to implement both online voter registration and automated voter registration at DMVs.
  • Delaware’s paperless voter registration at DMVs saves election officials more than $200,000 annually on personnel costs, above the savings they reaped by partially automating the process in the mid-1990s. Officials anticipate further savings. Our paper-based voter registration system may be the best the 19th century had to offer, but it is out of step with the higher-tech approach in other spheres of American life.
  • Online and automated DMV registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. The county spends 33¢ to manually process an electronic application, and an average of 3¢ using a partially automated review process, compared to 83¢ for a paper registration form.

Paperless voter registration is more accurate and reliable than paper forms:

  • Officials consistently confirm that paperless registrations produce fewer errors than paper forms and reduce opportunities for fraud.
  • A 2009 survey of incomplete and incorrect registrations in Maricopa County, Arizona found that electronic voter registrations are as much as five times less error-prone than their paper-based counterparts.

Online Security:

  • No state has reported a security breach, including Arizona, where voters have been registering online for more than a decade.
  • While none are known to date, security for online voter registration is an essential element of system design. Several approaches are used to ensure system security and prevent fraud or breaches by hackers.
  • All states require citizens to submit unique identifiers linking the applicant to his or her motor vehicles record in order to access the online registration system.
  • The registrant provides his or her driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number, information that others will not have.
  • All states require a citizen to have a record and, importantly, a signature on file with the motor vehicle agency (or equivalent licensing and identification agency) in order to register to vote online.
  • Twelve states have a real-time connection with the motor vehicle agency through which the applicants’ identities are verified. In one state—Kansas—records are sent and verified in batches.
  • Systems may include “captcha” boxes, where registrants must decode images that a computer cannot decode, to prevent hacking by programmers.
  • Data is encrypted and data logs highlight unusual activity that can be investigated.
  • Multi-screen systems, that offer just one question on a screen, are harder to hack.

Recent Action:

  • New Mexico: Two bills relating to online voter registration were signed by Governor Martinez in 2013 – one allows voters to update existing registration records electronically and another that clarifies that voter registration in MVD offices will be conducted electronically.
  • Illinois: Online voter registration became available in June 2014.
  • Massachusetts: Legislation to create online voter registration was enacted in May 2014.
  • Delaware: Full online voter registration became available in April 2014.
  • Nebraska: Legislation to create online voter registration was enacted in March 2014.
  • Georgia: Online voter registration became available in March 2014.
  • Minnesota: Online registration became available in October 2013, and in 2014, the legislature authorized the use of the system.
  • Connecticut: Online voter registration went “live” in December 2013. 
  • Illinois, Virginia and West Virginia: Legislation to create online voter registration was enacted in 2013.

Common Cause New Mexico on the formation of an Independent Ethics Commission:

New Mexico routinely receives a failing grade from national organizations in the categories of transparency, accountability, and risk of corruption. Specifically, these grades are in the areas of legislative accountability, public access to information, and transparency in the state budget process. The vast majority of elected officials in New Mexico are honest, hard-working people, however, the few that skim the edges of the law are left with no oversight from the Legislature or the executive branch and the public has taken notice.

Ethics committees are a meaningful way for legislatures to strengthen their credibility with the public.

Creating an Ethics Commission in New Mexico will:

  • Allow for consistent interpretation of laws and standards
  • Provide education, guidance and training for public officials
  • Serve as a deterrent for unethical practices in both state and local government
  • Increase public confidence in the integrity of New Mexico government
  • Increase the chances for fair enforcement of standards of conduct for those entrusted with public power
  • Increase economic development for business opportunity looking to build in New Mexico 

State government serves the needs of all citizens, without regard to position, wealth or personal relationships. Public officials must perform their duties in an impartial manner, free from bias caused by their own financial interests or the financial interests of a person who has supported them. Adequate enforcement mechanisms are needed to ensure that the laws, rules and standards for public officials are enforced vigorously and impartially.

While no laws or rules area substitute for good moral character or intention, the creation of clear, fair, ethical rules and standards provide critical guidance and will draw bright lines to create a common view of appropriate behavior.  No person, whether in or out of government, is the best judge of their own case. The creation of an independent entity to investigate allegations of violations of ethical standards of conduct will better insulate the process from political or partisan influences as well as protecting the public interest.

New Mexico is one of only nine states without an ethics commission, and creating a carefully considered independent ethics commission with protections for legislators and whistleblowers alike will solidify trust between the public and our elected officials.

About Common Cause New Mexico:

Common Cause New Mexico is dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process. For more information, click here.

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