Opinions

Alaska still needs better campaign contribution disclosure

Mayoral runoff election

Alaskans are about to stumble into a brave new world created by injection of millions of dollars from mostly Outside organizations pining to rejigger our election process from the ground up.

Many of us are left to wonder: Why is Alaska still left without one thing it sorely needs in its elections — immediate campaign contribution disclosure in each election contest?

The need for instant disclosure became more clear when the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw open the floodgates for individual campaign contributions in next year’s elections by refusing to reconsider a three-judge panel’s decision striking down three of Alaska’s campaign contribution limits.

Enter Proposition 2, touted as “Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative.” In reality, it is 25 pages of mind-numbing legalese adopted in last year’s general election by a margin of 3,781 votes — of the 344,283 cast.

The new law ostensibly is aimed at righting “mistaken” U.S. Supreme Court decisions, primarily the court’s 2010 Citizens United v. F.E.C. ruling. The high court, much to the left’s shock and horror, equated independent political contributions with free speech and allowed unlimited contributions to, and expenditures by, independent groups that may run ads and support candidates, but are prohibited from directly coordinating with them or their campaigns. The ruling cleared the way for unlimited independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, labor unions, nonprofit corporations and other associations.

Alaska’s new elections law, however, goes further than simply trying to combat high court decisions by curbing independent campaign expenditures and identifying the source of such money, much of it from “dark,” or undisclosed sources. It upends Alaska’s election process.

With ponderous verbiage — there is even one 120-word sentence, and the title alone goes on for 95 words — it eviscerates the notion of political party affiliation and does away with party primary elections, denying those organizations the ability to choose their own candidates. Instead, the top four vote-getters who survive a “jungle” primary of all comers and all political stripes will advance to the general election, where a winner will be chosen by ranked-choice voting.

The elections measure squeaked by at the polls — making Alaska the second state, behind Maine, to adopt the system — despite earnest opposition from both sides of the political aisle, giving Alaska what late Washington Post columnist David Broder, in his “Democracy Derailed,” called, “not a government of laws, but laws without government.” A lawsuit filed by members of the Republican, Alaskan Independence and Libertarian parties is pending before the Alaska Supreme Court, where just about anything can happen.

While “Better Elections” purported to be a panacea for what ails Alaska election-wise, its passage does nothing, nada, zip to address a major point — the lag time between when contributions to candidates’ campaigns are made and when those contributions are available to the public on the Alaska Public Offices Commission website.

The new law does require 24-hour reporting by independent expenditure groups of money they spend and by people who donate to them in certain circumstances. But there is nothing concerning individual contributions to political campaigns.

In contrast, it can be days, even weeks before an individual’s contribution to a candidate’s campaign shows up for public perusal in APOC’s online records. In the waning days of a political contest that information can be pivotal in helping voters decide who to support. Immediately knowing the source of campaign funding, after all, is every bit as important as knowing the amount.

“There is a big difference between a $50 bill and a $50 bill with a string tied to it,” an old Southern constable once opined as we talked politics and money. “Them strings get yanked.”

Alaskan voters need to know who is holding those strings — and as quickly as technology and the treasury will allow — and not just when it comes to independent campaign groups. APOC is doing a good job for an agency chronically short of funding and staff, but the courts’ decisions allowing increased political contributions in Alaska ensure there will be even more money in elections.

Money pouring into individual campaigns in their final weeks and days without immediate public disclosure short-changes voters of vital information and allows recipient campaigns a decided advantage. It allows contributors to dump money into a political campaign at the last minute, and the public can be unaware until after the last vote is cast because of current reporting deadlines.

The Legislature could change all that by investing in APOC, a victim of chronic underfunding, and making necessary changes in laws and regulations to ensure our elections remain transparent and informed. Lawmakers can find the money; they must find the will.

Without immediate income and spending disclosure in all political races — in individual campaigns as well as by independent expenditure groups — our brave new world will look a lot like the one reformers say they are trying to fix.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

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Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins is a former Associated Press reporter, managing editor of the Anchorage Times, an editor of the Voice of the Times and former editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.

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