Editorials

To ensure fair elections, Alaska’s campaign finance laws need teeth

On Monday, the Alaska Public Offices Commission — the state’s enforcer of laws related to campaign finance and lobbying — levied a major fine against Mayor Dave Bronson for serious reporting issues relating to the funding of his campaign. The group found that Bronson’s campaign filed reports late, misreported or failed to report tens of thousands of dollars of spending during the campaign, and took in donations in excess of Alaska’s legal limits from several people. APOC fined Bronson’s campaign $38,500, adding to the $33,500 it fined him in August for failing to report contributions in a timely manner.

For most of us, $72,000 is no small sum — a debt that size would significantly hamper the average Alaska family. But when it comes to politics, pockets are often deep enough that such a fine, though undesirable, might well be seen as the cost of doing business. After all, Bronson won his race, so any fines incurred by the campaign are water under the bridge when it comes to achieving its end goal. And surely a sitting mayor — even if his campaign doesn’t have enough cash on hand to dispense with the fine immediately — will be able to raise money to retire the debt with little difficulty.

This isn’t to say Bronson wouldn’t have won the race regardless, or that campaign staff intentionally misreported finances. As the adage known as Hanlon’s Razor goes, “never attribute to malice that which may be adequately explained by incompetence.” Campaigns are hectic, and if campaigns don’t keep good track of their income and outflows, it’s easy to make errors — even major ones — in reporting. And if the end result is just a fine payable after the dust from the race has settled, campaign managers may well ask themselves: Why bother being scrupulous with their reporting while there are a hundred other ways to spend time and money that would be more effecting in getting more votes?

The problem, of course, is that these finance disclosures, overseen by APOC, are the only window the public has into who’s paying for campaigns — and who’s being paid by them. Without that oversight, we can have no confidence that candidates aren’t taking illegal contributions, running dirty, unattributed hit-piece ads, and all the other skulduggery that exists on the fringes of our political system.

And right now, APOC doesn’t have the authority or the resources to punish violations — and stop them — when they occur. Imagine if there were instant replay in pro sports, but instead of pausing the game to make sure the right call was made, league officials looked at game tape a week later and handed out thousand-dollar fines to offending teams but left all the results, from touchdowns to completed passes to the final game score, intact? That’s the system we have now for campaign finance regulation in Alaska, and it’s no wonder campaigns often don’t pay more attention to their accounting. All reactive punishment does is teach campaigns they need to build a sufficient war chest of donations that fines don’t matter.

In APOC’s defense, it has been hamstrung, either by accident or design, by state lawmakers. Ten years ago, the agency’s budget allocation was just shy of $1.5 million, funding 14 staff members. That sum might seem sufficient to manage campaign finance laws in Alaska, but the group trains candidates, state and municipal officials and their staff on reporting, handles and error-checks thousands of reports per year, maintains a state database online where Alaskans can reference them, and fields, investigates and adjudicates dozens of election-related complaints. Even in 2011, near the height of Alaska’s oil-fueled budget largesse, APOC’s budget was a relative pittance.

So what’s APOC’s budget now? Far less than it was a decade ago, a total of $920,000. Seven employees. And, crucially, the allocation for the APOC board allows for just 10 meetings per year. In the meantime, the proliferation of SuperPACs and independent expenditure groups has made the task of keeping tabs on campaign finance vastly more complex, as has a court decision lifting Alaska’s lower-than-the-U.S. donation limits. And those independent groups, by design, obfuscate the picture of where a candidate’s support is coming from. It all adds up to a system where APOC has to delay action until long after it would matter.

Is there a solution? Sure. For starters, APOC is underfunded if we want it to be able to act quickly, while campaigns are underway and fines or other sanctions might make a difference. More money is needed if we want finance laws enforced proactively and not reactively.

But simply throwing more money at the agency isn’t sufficient. APOC also needs authority to act swiftly and put a halt to violations while campaigns are ongoing. Picture a version of the commission that has the authority and means to summon representatives from campaigns on both sides of a complaint and act on it within 48 hours of its filing during the final 30 days of a campaign — levying fines, pulling illegal ads, requiring better disclosure. Having an agency that could suss out whether bad behavior is occurring, effectively in real time, would have tremendous value in building and sustaining Alaskans’ trust in our elections. The commission would also be better able to shut down frivolous complaints meant to game the court of public opinion, which now often go unaddressed until after Election Day just the same as those that have merit.

Both pieces of this solution for a better-equipped APOC require impetus in the Legislature to make it happen, which has been a sticking point so far — legislators who benefit from lax oversight can be disinclined to give themselves stricter rules to follow. But pressure from the public to do the right thing — coupled with the threat of an initiative if they don’t follow through — can work wonders. Regardless of our political stripes, we should all be able to get behind a more functional system of keeping races honest and elections fair.