Opinion: Hyattsville campaign finance tweaks leave voters in the dark

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Michael Theis/Route 1 Reporter

From background to foreground: Mayor Candance Hollingsworth and Councilors Edouard Haba, Bart Lawrence and Shani Warner, four of Hyattsville's 11 City Council members, seen at a July 16, 2018 meeting.

Hyattsville’s proposed campaign finance rules erode transparency and open the city’s elections to fraud and abuse. The proposed rules should be amended to mandate all candidates submit some form of financial disclosure, regardless of campaign size, at some point during or after the election season.

Under current law, all Hyattsville City Council candidates must file three campaign finance disclosure reports, one at the start of, one near the end of, and one after the campaign season. As written, the proposed campaign finance rules would exempt any candidate from financial disclosure reporting so long as they filed an affidavit saying they do not expect to raise or spend more than $1,000 during their campaign. If it had been applied over the past three election cycles, more than half of all candidates – 20 out of 37 – would have been eligible to exempt themselves from campaign finance reporting.

The reasoning for the change presented before Hyattsville City Council at its Oct. 15, 2018, meeting is that the reporting requirements themselves might put-off otherwise qualified candidates for city elected offices. A secondary motivation for the change is to ease the burden on Hyattsville staff who process the campaign finance disclosure forms. A tertiary motivation was to align the campaign spending levels that currently trigger oversight requirements such as hiring a treasurer (presently $1,000) or opening a bank account (presently $200). These rationales lack the gravity necessary to erode Hyattsville’s campaign finance transparency or could be solved by other means. An argument that staff are having a hard time processing campaign finance reports isn’t a good reason to erode transparency, it’s a good reason to hire more staff.

Further, there is a public value to campaign finance transparency that outweighs the burden it imposes on an individual candidate. For one, It allows voters to see not only who else in their community supports a candidate, it also allows donors a record by which to ensure their money is being spent wisely. Further, I reject the notion that exempting low-dollar campaigns from financial disclosure makes it easier for prospective candidates to run. These records are frequently used by prospective candidates to learn about the local political funding sources. In the absence of public financing of political campaigns, such information is crucial to potential politicians.

Make no mistake about it: campaign finance fraud and misappropriation is a problem, not just nationally, but locally. Route 1 Reporter has reviewed a complaint from a resident of another municipality who is able to document checks cashed by a municipal political candidate which did not appear on financial disclosure statements filed later. I’ve not had the opportunity to pursue that story further, but it raises questions. Such a financial irregularity is made harder to detect if a candidate did not have to file campaign finance reports.

A $1,000 limit on campaign finance reporting at the small municipal level seems almost to exist in a world before cheap, targeted digital advertising was available to anyone with a credit card and a few social media accounts. The entire reason my career is in the toilet is because the price of advertising and promotion has dropped off a cliff over the past 20 years. As the editor of Route 1 Reporter, I regularly use social media advertising to promote my content on Facebook and Twitter. I know for a fact how ridiculously cheap it is to spread your message across a municipality the size of Hyattsville. For roughly $1 per day, limiting my audience to people interested in local politics who live in Hyattsville, I can expect reach 300 to 900 people per day on Facebook. Such a campaign, run over a one- or three-month period would likely reach a majority of active registered voters with Facebook accounts, building crucial brand awareness and engagement necessary to attract at least some votes at a cost far below levels to ever require financial disclosure.

While that might not win an election, the $1,000 exemption limit coupled with the low-cost of digital advertising opens up Hyattsville to election meddling such as shadow vote-splitting campaigns, where Candidate X funds a Candidate Y who runs an inexpensive campaign designed to mirror the positions of and leech votes from Candidate Z. That might sound far-fetched, conspiratorial or cynical, but in the age of Trump, “active measures,” the sabermetric-ization of politics, we need to put aside the assumption that “non-partisan” local politics are somehow free from malicious actors. The best way to guard against these malicious actors is to force their activities into the sunlight. Yes, one may lie on a form, but such a form provides a valuable ledger that can be checked against when irregularities are suspected.

If there is a middle ground between the proposed overhaul and the current law, it might be to align the banking and treasurer costs but keep the reporting schedule as it is now. Another option – call it the three-quarter ground because it still erodes present levels of transparency – is to align banking and treasurer costs, eliminate the initial filing for low-dollar campaigns but still require low-dollar campaigns to file a single financial disclosure form near the end of the election season and a final form wrapping up their campaign season spending and closing down accounts.

The motivation to encourage more candidate participation is understandable (especially on Maryland’s second-largest City Council), and the desire to align regulatory fundraising levels makes aesthetic sense. But policies that would, presently, eliminate more than half of Hyattsville’s recent political candidates from financial disclosure seems a poor tool to solve those problems.

One thought on “Opinion: Hyattsville campaign finance tweaks leave voters in the dark

  1. I think it’s fair to question whether $1,000 is too high a limit for an affidavit of limited contributions and expenses (ALCE), but I also think that setting a threshold below which more extensive reports are required is a reasonable policy to put in place. A similar policy exists for state and county elections (both with a $1,000 limit) and in the Town of Smithsburg (with a $1,500 limit). There is nothing in the law that requires a campaign raising/spending less than $1,000 to file an ALCE, and some candidates who raise/spend less than that amount may choose to file a full report.

    I would note that while staff do spend time making sure that reports are recorded as being filed and making them available to the public (as well as answering questions from candidates), it is the Ethic Commission that is charged with reviewing and certifying campaign finance reports and where much of the burden in processing them lies.

    Campaign finance reports are an important part of ensuring transparency in elections, and voters should definitely take into consideration the information revealed (or not) in making their decisions, but I think there is a place for ALCEs in municipal elections.

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