In August came news that Dianna Duran, New Mexico’s secretary of state and in charge of overseeing campaign finance compliance, had taken money from her campaign account, spent it at local casinos and falsified her own reports to hide it. Two months later she pleaded guilty to six criminal charges, including two felony counts of embezzlement.
Weeks after her guilty plea, a report comparing campaign finance laws and compliance across all 50 states revealed what many of us in New Mexico already knew: Our state seriously lags when it comes to monitoring and controlling the flow of money into the political system. According to the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Report, New Mexico ranked 36th,, flunking campaign finance transparency.
Those who shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh yes, things are terrible, but what can we do?” might have a look at Massachusetts, the state to score highest in campaign finance transparency in CPI’s report.
If your goal is to protect the political power of citizens against corruption and the oversized influence of big money, then these are some of the ways it can be done.
NM’s high contribution limits make it easy to influence elections
In New Mexico, a small state with a large media market, it doesn’t take much cash to buy television ads that reach an audience spread over nearly the whole state. Yet we have relatively high contributions limits compared to bigger states where it costs much more to reach the same number of voters.
Individuals, corporations, lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) can give up to $10,800 to candidates for statewide office between the primary and general elections. Massachusetts, by comparison, keeps a tighter watch on issue advocates seeking to influence government.
Massachusetts limits individual donations to $1,000 per year to a candidate or political committee, $500 to a PAC and $5,000 to a state or local party committee. Corporations are banned from giving money to individual candidates or to parties, and they can be fined up to $50,000 for doing so. Lobbyists can give only $200 to a candidate or PAC. The state limits PACs to giving $500 per year to a candidate, and $5,000 to parties. And there’s a limit on how much candidates can accept from all PACs; a state House candidate could only take $7,500, no matter how many different PACs donated.
Lack of disclosure leaves NM voters in the dark
Because contribution limits apply separately to individuals and corporations, in New Mexico companies are able to pump more money into elections if the business owners, executives and employees also give individually.
But tracking that money isn’t easy. In addition to its lower contribution limits, Massachusetts requires donors who give a total of $200 or more to list an occupation and the name of their employer.
New Mexico state law only requires donors who give more than $250 to disclose their occupation, making it hard to track the influence of special interest groups and industries. Feeble oversight of campaign finance reporting in New Mexico, however, weakens even that meager requirement. These details are often filled out wrong or left blank.
Open data helps the public see where the money goes
Massachusetts uses technology to make it easy for the public to see how money flows in and out of the political system. Its online database allows users to search by name, employer, occupation or ZIP code; the results of a search—or the entire database—can be exported into spreadsheet or database formats. The website also makes it easy for the public to understand trends in the data with data visualization tools that turn the numbers into charts and graphs.
New Mexico’s database allows only limited downloads, limiting the public’s ability to make sense of the data.
Outside groups operate with freedom and in secrecy in NM
In the run-up to an election, voters are subjected to a barrage of political messages advertised on television, on the radio, online and through the mail. In New Mexico it can be very hard for citizens to figure out who’s paying for these messages and what stake they have in the election.
That’s because New Mexico’s campaign finance laws are antiquated. Yet reform bills that would clarify the law, particularly in defining what constitutes “coordination” between a candidate and independent groups, and create disclosure rules, continually flounder at the state Legislature.
Massachusetts requires that any group making a political ad buy disclose its donors within seven days. A group has to disclose its donors within 24 hours if the ad airs less than ten days before an election.
And Massachusetts’ definition of coordination is three pages long.
Lack of auditing leaves an open door to malfeasance
In 2014, former state Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, filed campaign finance reports that left out information about $26,000 in donations. The information was only revealed after her Democratic challenger filed an ethics complaint. Political opponents are often the only ones who look that closely at campaign finance reports since state law only requires the secretary of state’s office to audit 10 percent of the forms. And that auditing usually happens after the election is over.
In Massachusetts, a staff of seven, including four auditors, closely review all campaign finance reports within a month of when they’re filed.
But even New Mexico’s sliver of oversight is feeble. An investigation by The Farmington Daily Times showed that although the secretary of state’s office frequently levied fines under former Secretary Dianna Duran, the majority of them went unpaid without consequence. Duran’s office collected only 4 percent of the fines imposed in recent elections and waived about one-third of all the fines. Duran, like secretaries of state before her, said that her office was focused on securing “voluntary compliance” with campaign finance laws.
Mass. campaign finance watchdog has teeth—and isn’t afraid to bite
An Office of Campaign and Political Finance has the authority to regulate and oversee campaign finance, including the power to subpoena witnesses and documents related to an investigation.
The Office can order remedial training on campaign finance law or assess fines up to $5,000; particularly egregious or repeat offenders can be referred to the state Ethics Commission or the Attorney General’s office.
In New Mexico, where candidates routinely file reports with incomplete data, file their reports late or don’t file at all, it seems hard to imagine that in Massachusetts, a candidate for state representative who didn’t keep proper records and took some donations over the limit paid $20,000 in fines.
In just the past few years, Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance has collected tens of thousands of dollars in penalties candidates found to have keep improper records and illegally solicited donations.