COMMENTARY: Several years ago, with a team of other UNM law students, I undertook the laborious task of tracing contributions made by political action committees (PACs) to New Mexico candidates.
We looked at contributions from 2005-2012 using the web-based campaign reporting site operated by the secretary of state as part of research for a report published by Common Cause New Mexico, New Mexico PACs: Growth, Influence and Shifting Interests.
In spite of some good help from the Secretary of State’s Office, we learned quickly how difficult it is for ordinary citizens to plow through the morass of data in the campaign reports and draw intelligent conclusions.
The recent charges of misuse of campaign funds by the secretary of state and several legislators are based on information from the campaign reporting system. I feel for the people wading through the data. It is no easy task.
For starters, there is no ability to quickly cross-check the donations made by PACs or individuals to the contributions received by candidates. Several charges in the current cases come from the discrepancy between the two.
How many other cases are there out there? It will take forever to find out using our current system. Yet the public has a right to know.
There is also little uniformity in the names of organizations used in the reports, making it difficult to aggregate total contributions or identify trends. The same organization may be listed under 10 different names. The same lobbyist can be registered under his nickname, his full name, or his father’s name. Slight differences in spelling can wreck havoc with the system.
In addition, candidates are required to give the occupations of contributors who give over $250, but these are frequently identified as businessman, consultant or CEO — not very helpful when trying to identify which economic sector favors a certain candidate.
It has also been very difficult to search, sort and download the reports that are available. Unalterable PDFs can only go so far. The data needs to be manipulated in order to make any sense to voters, citizens and students.
The system is confusing to candidates, as well as members of the media and the public, and it is easy to make a mistake in a date or an amount. Yet, with a few exceptions, there are no automatic mechanisms to catch little errors, or notify candidates of late or misfiled reports.
Reforms to consider
Regardless of what you think of elected officials, and whether they are intentionally or unintentionally misusing campaign funds, the reporting system itself cries out for reform.
Common Cause New Mexico made a start in the past legislative session, passing a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Steinborn that made the secretary of state retain records longer, and make the whole website more accessible by requiring that it be easily searchable and downloadable.
But it is only a beginning. Here are some other reforms New Mexico should consider to prevent corruption and allow for enforcement of existing laws:
- Mechanism to cross-check contributions made and received
- Easier downloads, searches
- Better training for candidates in proper reporting procedures and use of websites
- Better notification to candidates of late or missing reports and discrepancies
- Better training of campaign treasurers, who should be held accountable as well as candidates
- Regular audits of campaign bank accounts or a requirement that candidates submit checkbooks as well as reports
In the computer era, accountability is based on electronic transparency and the ease with which citizens can access information about those who speak in their names. Before we start with requirements for more frequent reports, increased penalties, and more enforcement (all suggestions popping up in the media these days), let’s start with the basics: A better campaign reporting system.
Vik Patel spends his days analyzing data and attending law school. He’s worked as an analyst for the New Mexico State Senate and Common Cause New Mexico. Previously, he covered politics in Iowa for five years in radio and print.