There are less than 100 days until Election Day on November 6th, and under Colorado’s mail ballot election system Coloradans will start voting even sooner than that. So it’s not surprising that campaign flyers are already showing up in mailboxes across our state.
What may surprise you is that under our state’s currently flawed campaign finance laws, it’s perfectly legal for some types of organizations to distribute campaign flyers anonymously – without any indication of who paid for them.
Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated or none of the above, this should bother you. Colorado voters deserve to know who is trying to influence our elections.
Certain forms of communications – like when a flyer from a third party organization specifically asks you to vote for a candidate – must include a disclaimer, which is a note indicating who paid for the communication. That information lets voters to do their own research or go online to find out more about that organization. But some forms of communications are not required to include that disclaimer, thereby allowing so-called “mystery money” to influence our elections.
Colorado’s disclaimer law needs to be expanded to cover the types of election ads that we see today. This lack of transparency encourages political flyers that are misleading or based on inaccurate information – or both – which lowers the level of our democratic discourse.
This is why during the 2018 legislative session I sponsored the “Stand By Your Ad Act” with Senator Steve Fenberg of Boulder to address this important issue. Our bill would have expanded the scope of disclaimer requirements under Colorado campaign finance law and specifically included online political ads, which are proliferating. Transparency in online advertising is especially important in light of the scandalous conduct of Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 election. Concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal information grew so vast that the firm shut down earlier this year. The goal of the Stand By Your Ad Act was to ensure transparency in political advertising and enhance engagement in our political process.
My Democratic colleagues and I enthusiastically passed this bill through the House despite every House Republican voting against it. It’s still unclear to me why they voted against it – transparency in our elections should not be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, the Republicans that control the State Senate followed suit and killed our bill on a party-line vote. We will bring the bill back next year, and I will keep working on campaign finance transparency issues for as long as I am a member of our state legislature.
A number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have allowed unprecedented sums of undisclosed money to influence elections at all levels. At the very least, we can drag those mystery flyers into the light so voters are aware of who is spending money to sway public opinion.
Unfortunately, the federal government is encouraging less transparency, not more. Earlier this month, Trump’s Treasury Secretary announced that the IRS will no longer require tax-exempt organizations – designated as 501(c)(4s) under the tax code – to disclose the names or addresses of their donors on their annual tax returns. This move will further reduce transparency and open the floodgates for more mystery money to flow into elections at all levels.
More transparency about electoral processes can reduce skepticism of politics and increase voter participation. I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will join me next year in tamping down mystery money.
Mike Weissman represents Aurora at the state legislature. He serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee.
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