“Dirty money” shaping California elections

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

“Dirty money” has come to define California elections. (Photo Credit: 401 (k) 2013)

Yesterday the world’s smallest sovereign state, the Vatican, in the world’s most secretive electoral process, elected their next head-of-state, more commonly known as the Pope. The coincidence of this election steeped in secrecy occurring smack-dab in the middle of Sunshine Week got me thinking about the openness of state elections right here in California.

Our elections aren’t exactly immune to a bout of mystery every now and again, but the intrigue results from financial contributions, not the burning of ballots. In fact, the donors behind the secretive $11 million contribution in support of Prop. 30 and in opposition to Prop. 32 ahead of the November 2012 election have yet to be unmasked.

The effect this anonymous “dirty money” donation, as Jerry Brown has called it, had on the election results demonstrates the importance of transparent and accessible campaign finance disclosure data, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. The shadowy money dumped into California is one reason he thinks Prop. 30 passed and Prop. 32 failed. “People want to know where the money is coming from,” he explained, “particularly when the money is not disclosed.”

As former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh astutely observed, “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

Campaign contributions affect policy decisions; political donors often expect a return on their investment. For this reason, voters have a right to know who is funding who or what and why. Moreover, to confidently make the most informed decision at the ballot box, voters need to know the source of campaign funds.

Despite the fact that the original source of the controversial donation in the last election cycle has not yet been identified, California’s campaign finance disclosure laws are among the strictest in the nation, thanks in part to Bob Stern.

Nearly four decades ago, Stern and then Secretary of State Jerry Brown co-authored the Political Reform Act of 1974, the landmark Watergate-era measure that established the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), imposed disclosure requirements for political campaign contributions and spending, and continues to serve as a model for other states.

“If you had told me that 40 years later this initiative would be alive and kicking, I would probably would have said ‘no way,’” said Stern. Although having been amended more than 200 times since 1974, Stern believes the law really hasn’t changed dramatically.

The initial goal of the initiative, passed by an overwhelming majority of 70 percent, was to increase public confidence in government, which Stern says, it certainly hasn’t accomplished. However, “in terms of campaign finance disclosure, I think the law is working well, as is the commission, but it obviously needs a few tweaks,” Stern said.

While many advocates and legislators are calling for stricter campaign disclosure requirements, Stern says there’s no need, except in regards to revealing the top three funding sources in political ads. “I don’t think we need more disclosure,” said Stern, “we need easier access to what is already being disclosed, and not just at the state level but also at the city and county level.”

The biggest problem lies not in the strength of the law, but in the administration by the Secretary of State. “Updating the Secretary of State’s electronic filing system to make it much more robust, easily accessible, and user-friendly should be the priority,” Stern said. But he acknowledges that such modernization requires money, which the SOS’s office doesn’t have.

As a result of legislation passed last year increasing lobbyist registration fees, California’s outdated campaign contribution database, Cal-Access, will soon be getting the funding to undergo a much needed face-lift.

Some critics of the FPPC, the political watchdog that enforces California’s campaign finance and conflict of-interest laws, say it lacks any teeth. Giving the FPPC “criminal authority,” Stern argues, is one way to ensure compliance. The threat of potentially spending “just one day and one night in jail would be plenty of disincentive to break the law.”

Overall Stern asserts that California has a strong campaign finance law that helps ensure our elections are transparent by requiring public reporting of lobbying activity and campaign contributions.

“Although it hasn’t increased public confidence, it has helped,” said Stern. “We’ve had a lot more disclosure and therefore much better elections than people across the country. And we have a better commission in California than at the federal level.”

Based on the public’s close attention to the papal conclave and last year’s anonymous $11 million dollar donation, clearly elections and campaign donations shrouded in secrecy seem to capture the interest of the public more than those that are transparent. But just because California’s elections are much more transparent doesn’t mean they should be written off as dull and undeserving of our rapt attention

I’d take California’s open and transparent elections over the papal conclave’s mystery vote any day. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg