GUEST POST: Fixing Colorado’s Broken Campaign Finance Enforcement System

A federal lawsuit is currently challenging Colorado’s unique system under which private citizens enforce campaign finance laws at their own expense in an administrative law court. The suit was filed by the target of one such lawsuit and is being prosecuted with the help of Washington, D.C. based lawyers.

While the suit is being cheered on by opponents of strong regulation of money in politics, those who support such regulation should be concerned about the outsourcing of campaign finance enforcement to the private sector.

In most states that have robust campaign finance laws, a state official or agency such as Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices or California’s Fair Political Practices Commission is primarily responsible for enforcing laws regarding money in politics.

In Colorado, the Secretary of State has the authority to impose fines for tardy filing by registered committees, but otherwise has only the same ability as anyone else to file a campaign finance complaint and prosecute it before an administrative law judge. The state constitution provides that “any person” may file a campaign finance complaint, but those who file such complaints have no hope of recovering their expenses; all fines imposed in such cases are payable to the government. Only in rare cases where a private citizen or group has to go to court to enforce an administrative ruling can someone who files a campaign finance complaint recover their attorneys’ fees.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams recently repealed a rule that allowed the Secretary of State to file a campaign finance complaint if the office discovered a violation through the ordinary course of operating the state’s money in politics disclosure website, TRACER (Transparency in Contribution and Expenditure Reporting).

As a practical matter, the rule repeal changed nothing; the Secretary of State’s office had not been using its authority to file actions in the private enforcement system anyway. Still, the rule repeal is a step in the wrong direction. In order to prevent alleged abuses of the private-party enforcement system, and in order to make regulation of money in Colorado politics more effective, the Secretary of State can and should do more to encourage compliance with disclosure laws and contribution limits.

Even without changing the state constitution’s private enforcement system, the Secretary of State could take steps to resolve many violations without resorting to the full-blown litigation process. For example, the state’s online reporting system, TRACER, could be modified to flag violations such as contributions in excess of limits or failure to identify employment information for individuals contributing $100 or more to a committee. The Secretary’s office could then send a letter, similar to the letters sent for late filings, to committees making such errors so that they could be corrected without the filing of a private lawsuit.

The Secretary’s office has recently earned just praise for their advances in technology. The office unveiled a text message system to encourage voter registration, and its new Accountability in Colorado Elections (ACE) website makes public data about voting easy to access. There is no reason TRACER can’t meet the same high standards established by these innovations.

Beyond modifications to TRACER, the Secretary could also audit a random sample of committees to make sure that their public filings correspond to what the books show. Under the current system, committees must maintain records regarding their contributions and spending, but are under no obligation to share that information with members of the public who are expected to prove a case for reporting violations in court. Under the current system there is literally no way for a private citizen to know whether a committee’s filed report is fact or fiction.

Colorado’s private enforcement system for violations of money in politics laws is a real problem, but not for the reasons foes of regulation of the flow of money in elections would have the public believe. A more active role for the Secretary of State would alleviate the perceived problems in the current system while helping ensure that the laws Colorado voters enacted are actually followed.

Luis Toro is Executive Director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonprofit devoted to strong enforcement of ethics, campaign finance, and government transparency laws.

Photo credit: 401(K) 2012, Creative Commons, Flickr


  1. Only fools and criminals think that a system where you openly bribe politicians before, during and after their tenure in government is a sensible idea. We bribe politicians to run, handing them cash in a barrel to get them into office.

    Then, we let the lobbyists corrupt the life out of them with more “campaign contributions”, and we actually have a system where 60% of an average politician’s day is set up to solicit money. They spend hours PER DAY on the phone, NOT dong the country’s business, but begging people for money so they can stay in office to beg for more money.

    Once they leave office, we let them go into “lobbying”, which is just another way of saying they now work for the instrument OF the corruption. And they make MILLIONS doing that.

    Before, during and after.

    You want a system that works for something OTHER than the money? Good luck. I have a plan, but it will never get a chance, it might work.

    1) Set up a fund for all elections. The amount handed out to each candidate would be specified per race. NO other money can be used. Not yours, your friends or family’s, no corporation’s. Anyone caught violating this would be given jail time, NO exceptions.

    2) Serious auditing of these funds would be required, and any money not spent would be returned to the fund. NO money from the campaign is to be kept by the campaign, the candidate, or anyone else BUT the fund.

    3) NO computerized voting machines. Way too easy to play games with. Paper ballots have been good enough for over 200 years, and it wasn’t until the right wanted to play games and put their guy in (illegally, I might add), they worked just fine.

    3) End corporate personhood. This is a nonsense game, and it does nothing but open us up to corruption by those whose only goal is to make money. Corporations are artificial constructs intended to shield the owners from liability and responsibility. There is NO reason this creates a new group of “people”, this is a game played by the rich to give themselves far more power than they deserve.

    4) A certain amount of air time (equal and comparable) on both TV and radio would be afforded. In order to get the licenses to broadcast, the corporations USED to have to prove they did some good to the community. They still SHOULD have to. A license from the feds costs nothing, essentially, and it carries some responsibilities. This is one of them.

    5) End the corporate – government – lobbyist revolving door. NO MORE of this crap where they get into government, learn how to corrupt it and then go to work exploiting those corruptions. This should be made illegal and carry serious jail time.

    6) Elections can not last 2 years so that the instant an election is over, we start planning for the next one. They HAVE to be time limited. The important thing is to get the IDEAS out there so that we can choose which way to take the country. This nonsense of having to run the whole time you’re in office is nonsense, and it doesn’t allow for OUR work to get done.

    There are probably one or two things I’m forgetting, but this is largely it. It’s not that hard to have a system that works, but it takes keeping the corruption out at the root of things. With the absolute NONSENSE of Citizens United and other rulings, we’ve institutionalized corruption. How in the hell can things EVER get fixed if the game is rigged from the start in favor of the sociopathic class? And that is EXACTLY what we have now.

    Money is NOT the answer, money is the problem. And it always will be as long as those with too much of it are allowed to keep rigging the game against the rest of us. Just remember, if money is speech, then those with is have a voice, those without it have none. Is THAT what this country is supposed to be about? Not if you know your history, it’s not.

    Just remember, the rich are NEVER the solution, the rich are pretty much always the problem. It’s time to do something about them.

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