Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold takes aim at ‘massive secret political spending’

With their newfound power, Democratic legislators say they'll push campaign finance reform

Secretary of State Jena Griswold presented this week on her policy priorities, which include improving transparency in Colorado's campaign finance system. (Photo by Alex Burness for The Colorado Independent)

Those seeking to limit the influence of money in Colorado politics can only do so much.

Reformers would love to limit campaign expenditures, for example, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can’t impose any mandatory limits on how much candidates and outside groups spend, nor can they change the fact that tax-exempt “527” political groups and independent expenditure committees can accept virtually unlimited contributions and conceal much about where their money comes from.

That’s how, in 2018, Colorado ended up with a governor who dropped more than $23 million in personal cash on his race, and saw its most heated ballot issue, Prop. 112, drown in a 50-to-1 spending deluge by oil and gas industry interests over anti-fracking activists. It’s how nearly a quarter of a billion dollars was spent overall on the past election, shattering the previous state record.

But while reformers are relatively powerless to stop big money, campaign finance experts say there’s significant opportunity to increase transparency in elections, so that citizens can at least be better informed about who’s trying to tip the scales.

Colorado’s new secretary of state, Democrat Jena Griswold, says campaign finance transparency is one of her primary focuses. She spoke on that and other priorities during a presentation to state legislators on Thursday.

“We can’t have our voices drowned out by massive secret political spending. Coloradans deserve to know who is trying to influence their vote and how they are trying to do it,” Griswold said. “We must bring transparency to the millions and millions of dollars used to influence our elections.”

Political action committees in Colorado can buy up ads and mailers without ever disclosing where their money comes from, as long as they don’t explicitly advocate for a particular candidate or position. Many groups exploit this loophole to attack or promote certain candidates and ideas while keeping their donor bases secret. The Colorado Sun recently highlighted more than $600,000 in spending on commercials condemning Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton that never mentioned there was an election coming up or endorsed his opponent. Where the money came from remains a mystery.

Of course, Griswold can’t advance her policy goals on that front without the cooperation of the legislature. But, unlike in recent years, there’s no split at the Capitol; Democrats now control state government, and campaign finance reform measures previously shot down are beginning to re-emerge as lawmakers take aim at a system that allows unlimited spending with limited accountability.

Colorado is highly regarded as one of the easiest states in the nation in which to register and to vote. But Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance watchdog at Common Cause — the same outfit from which Griswold just poached her new deputy, Jenny Flanagan — says that Colorado is just “middle of the pack” with regard to campaign finance transparency.

“There’s certainly room for improvement,” Ryan said. “There’s lots of potential, on firm constitutional footing, to shine light, to require disclosure of who’s raising and spending money to influence not only elections but lobbying-related disclosure, for example.”

Griswold identified a series of ways she believes the state can improve transparency:

  • “Require disclosure of secret political spending”
  • “Expand the ‘paid for by’ disclosure requirements on political advertisements”
  • “Exercise the Secretary of State’s audit and enforcement power to act on campaign finance, ballot access, and lobbyist violations”
  • “Prevent potential candidates from raising millions of dollars in unchecked and uncapped contributions into ‘independent’ committees designed to support them when they officially declare their candidacy” (That’s something Jeb Bush famously did prior to the 2016 presidential election.)
  • “Ensure that independent expenditure and other committees can be held accountable for campaign finance violations”
  • “Work to end the influence of powerful interest groups and lobbyists over candidates and elected officials through contributions to political entities”

Democrats, with their newfound power, say they plan to take the reins this session on campaign finance reform. Already, Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver has filed a bill to limit campaign contributions in county races to $1,250 per person in the primary and general elections — that bill just passed out of committee — and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada has teamed with Aurora Rep. Mike Weissman and Centennial Republican Rep. Jack Tate on a bill to expand disclosure rules regarding electioneering communications. Both those efforts are revivals of legislation previously killed under a split legislature.

“I expect that you’ll see more legislation on this from the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate,” Weissman said, “because we do believe it’s a priority. Voters of all parties, and no party, have said they’re tired of the influence of money — particularly money that can’t be traced or is hard to trace — in politics.”

Added Sirota, “Among our constituents, among voters, there is certainly suspicion about the corrupting influences of money in politics. … I think there’s an appetite among a number of members to do more to show voters, at a minimum, some transparency to preserve the integrity of our electoral system.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. Citizens United is most likely the single WORST decision EVER made at the SCOTUS. It allows for the COMPLETE bribery of ANY congressperson that a big money SCUMBAG wants, and makes it all completely legal and UNTRACEABLE. This is NOT sanity, this is the stupidity of money making decisions. Money ALWAYS makes stupid decisions, because it’s ONLY goal is to make more of itself. Sanity, ethics and actual survival of the species mean NOTHING.

    We need to implement a system that allows NO private money. NONE. Not one penny’s worth. Money is NOT speech, regardless of what several REALLY BAD SCOTUS decisions have claimed. I can’t go to the bank and pay my mortgage with a nice rousing speech, now, can I? At the end of it, they will say “Really nice, where’s your check?”. Speech and money are NOT the same thing, sorry, John “I will rule on what I WANT to rule on” Roberts. All you did was insure that this country will be permanently under the thumb of big money, something I am sure was your goal. May you rot in hell for three eternities for this. Maybe more.

    ANY private money is just an excuse for an “elected official” to do whatever their big money buddies want, NOT what the people who VOTED want. This is NOT how things should be, and until we get the private money out of ALL elections, we’re set to NOT change a damn thing, NOT protect the children of this state, NOT take into consideration things that will cause the destruction of the planet for human life. All we will do is make the psychopathic rich even richer. And there is NO benefit to ANYONE WORTHWHILE if that is all we do.

    It’s LONG PAST time to take all the private money out of elections. SPEECH is the ONLY thing that equals speech. Money can bribe. Speech cannot. Money corrupts, speech enlightens. A little bit of a difference there, and one that those in government SHOULD be smart enough to see for themselves. But if you’re busy chasing money, you’re NOT concerned with doing the RIGHT thing. It’s time to stop our elected officials from chasing the money.

  2. Impressive rant, Will Morrison.

    Putting aside the probability of your solution winning either politically or Constitutionally (I’ve been trying to cut down on my oracular predictions), could you explain how such a proposal would work?
    * does it mean candidates cannot spend spend their own money on a campaign? Can’t buy themselves or someone traveling with them a meal? Can organizations (political parties or Chambers of Commerce or “friends of Candidate A” or an association of Portuguese Water Dog owners) raise money for advertisements of an event, table & chairs, a PA system, and dinners at an event and have someone running for office come talk to them at that event? Can those groups pay the travel expenses of candidates from another state to come talk with them?
    * does your prohibition effect everyone at all times or just those who fill in the paperwork to become “official” candidates? or is there some other mark which determines who is and who is not “in politics” and thus cannot spend one penny of personal money?
    * assuming you want some money in politics, just not personal money, who decides who can get the public money to campaign? Does everyone get an equal amount, or are some candidates more equal than others and thus get more?

  3. John:

    First, a fund would have to be set aside that is free from political interference. There’s a challenge to begin with. From this fund, each candidate in a race would be afforded whatever amount is decided on for each race. That would be the ONLY money allowed to be used for the race. If the candidate spends it poorly and runs out too early, that tells you something about their ability to run things effectively. Any use of outside money, or the reception of outside money would immediately garner BOTH parties involved jail time.

    Those who have been handed broadcast permits would have to alot a certain amount of time to each candidate. It’s what we USED to do, at least until the Reagan era decision that corporate “citizenship” means that they owe us nothing, they only have to profit. Corporations used to have to prove that they were acting in the interests of the community, or they could and were shut down. We need to go back to that. Speaking of which, ending “corporate personhood” is at the top of this list. Corporations are NOT people, my friend, they are artificial constructs invented to shield owners from liability. That’s not enough to gain them such a strong position in politics as actual personhood. As they are not persons, they do NOT get the right to influence elections. As things are now, they OWN the government, exactly how things should NOT be.

    No computerized voting machines. it’s WAY too easy to make them lie and the way things are done now, it’s an invitation to corruption. hand counting may take longer, but there has to be a way to go back and recount, unlike today where there is NO way to do that in most cases. If you HAVE to do computers then the software HAS to be made available and any and all eyes who can debug software have to be allowed to check it out for viruses and outright illegal intent.

    Don’t let elections go on for two years like they do now. It makes it way too easy for the actual ideas in the candidate’s head (assuming there ARE any) from being the things argued. What we have now is way too long and lets character assassinations become the message. 3 months past the primaries is plenty, and the primaries shouldn’t take more than 2 months themselves.

    I could go on but I think you might get the message by now. There are plenty of details, and I’ve only scratched the surface. But unless you want to be run forever by the rich and big business, then we’d better come up with some way to deal with money being what makes the decisions. Good Lord, we’re smart enough to do this, aren’t we? We’d BETTER be. Here is my suggestion to start. Maybe if we just started by admitting that politicians aren’t any better than anyone else, and if YOU could be corrupted by the sight of tens of millions flapping in your face, then so could they. Time to make that REALLY illegal and holding them accountable for the damage they cause. Being able to vote them out far easier would be a good start.

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