Capitol Press Association
by Patrick Gannon
With just a few days remaining before Election Day, voters have little chance of learning exactly how General Assembly candidates spent their campaign cash or who gave it to them.
That’s because state legislative candidates only have to report their contributors and spending every few months. This year, candidates for state legislative seats had to file two campaign finance reports to cover receipts and spending in the first six months of the year.
And this week, new reports are due that cover the period from July 1 through Oct. 18. That period is typically very busy for donations and spending on legislative races.
But by the time the Board of Elections receives the latest reports and posts them to its online disclosure database, little time will be left before Nov. 4 for voters to make sense of what’s in them.
Plus, as of Monday, nearly 400,000 voters across the state had cast ballots early. Those voters couldn’t possibly have known how candidates on their ballots raised and spent money to help them get elected in the weeks before the election.
No, most voters aren’t going to go to the State Board of Elections’ website and search the disclosure database to find out who gave to candidates and what they spent their money on. That’s not the point.
The infrequent and last-minute disclosure of campaign finances also leaves advocacy groups and media organizations scrambling to compile and analyze the reports and disseminate them to the public before Election Day. It also gives the candidates themselves little time to research their opponents’ donors and spending and let the public know what they think.
“It seems to me that we do need to have more frequent reporting and an opportunity for the public to see where the money is coming from and how it is being spent,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a watchdog group.
Phillips said campaign spending reports help voters determine whether candidates are heavily financed or influenced by donors with certain industries or policies in mind.
“Voters can then draw their own conclusions about the person,” he said.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, deemed the state’s reporting schedule “inadequate.” He said he believes the state should require at least six reports a year, including an additional report between July 1 and Oct. 18. Many states, he said, require more than four reports annually.
Colorado, for example, requires four reports in non-election years. But it requires additional disclosure during election years, including monthly reports beginning six months before any election and biweekly reports starting two months before any election.
Colorado’s law also requires a report two weeks after the election, while North Carolina’s post-election report isn’t due until mid-January. By then, few people care anymore about how a candidate spent their money months earlier.
The number of required annual reports was increased from two to four for candidates in 1997, when less money was raised and spent on legislative campaigns, Hall said.
“The $100,000 campaign was rare back when this was passed,” he said.
Not so much anymore. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the rules.
—Patrick Gannon covers the state Legislature for the Capitol Press Association.