Make Campaign Finance Simpler

The Oregon Legislature convened an interim committee this year to examine the barriers to Oregonians choosing to run for public office. They looked at several things, took testimony from a hearing room full of folks, and recently released some suggestions for reform. Those included starting the Legislative Session later, say April, to coincide with the key budget projection in May. This, I believe, is a great idea. The less time our legislators are in Salem the less mischief they’ll get in. (You know, like boozin’ with lobbyists, dating Capitol janitorial staff…) They also suggested a test run an annual session in 2008. I still need convincing on that one.

One thing I wish had been front and center is a drive to simplify the dreaded contribution and expenditure reporting system, or C&Es. During an election season, a candidate must file C&E reports three times for the primary election and three times for the general election. In addition, there are periods to file “amendments” to your C&Es to correct or add information. The 2006 Campaign Finance Manual is 46 pages long and contains all the details you need to be thoroughly confused by the system. This goes along with the nearly 300 page 2005-2006 Oregon Election Law manual.

Over the last couple months, the Secretary of State’s office has been conducting full day clinics to try and explain the system to wide-eyed campaign treasurers. Most leave dazed and confused. I attended the Hillsboro session and watched as professional accountants and amateur campaign treasurers attempted to understand this stuff. And the Secretary of State’s staff was quick to point out that this doesn’t follow traditional accounting methods.

I’ve worked with campaign treasurers who are also professional tax preparers. They’ve told me that the Oregon C&E system is far more complex than federal income taxes. They also said the enforcement of C&E violations is far stricter than the IRS. A look on the Secretary of State’s webpage at the list of campaign finance violations for 2004-05 reveals that many, many campaigns are getting things wrong.

Granted, some people are cheating the system, meet former State Rep. Dan Doyle. So we do need a system that is transparent and shows who gives, how much, and basically how it is spent. But the current system is not understood by most people within the political campaign system, so how can regular Oregonians ever pretend to understand it?

The blame doesn’t lie solely with the Secretary of State’s office, but is shared by the Oregon Legislature. High profile cases like Dan Doyle’s leads the Legislature to take high profile steps to “correct” problems. In reality, all they are doing is piling more requirements on top of an already broken system.

In addition, electronic filing has added even more complexity. Introduced as a requirement for campaigns raising and spending and aggregate of $50,000 per election (that’s $50k for the primary, then the band resets and it becomes another $50k for the general…confused?), the Secretary of State’s approach to implementing this requirement was to issue a 19 page list of specifications for what your e-file had to look like and tell campaigns to figure out how to make it work. And the biggest problem with the specifications is that they took a square peg – the old paper system – and tried to cram it into a round hole – an electronic system.

Finally, the Legislature has required the Secretary of State to come up with their own e-filing system. I hope – nay often I pray – that they will consult with professional web system experts outside of state government to make this happen. If not, I am afraid it will simply make things even more complex.

We need an overhaul of the campaign finance reporting system in Oregon. Because of its complexity, normal, intelligent Oregonians struggle with meeting its requirements legally. The sheer number of violations from last election cycle suggests that the system itself is far too complex. Is it possible that that many campaigns are trying to cheat? And the complexity of the system just raises the costs of campaigns because candidates are forced to hire professional
treasurers to complete their C&Es.

The first filing deadline for 2006 is coming up in April. The screams of frustration you hear will be campaign treasurers trying to figure this stuff out.

Strip the system down. Throw out the current one. Please, ignore it as you move forward with the new system. The only time you should look at the old one is to see how NOT to create a campaign finance reporting system. The same goals can be achieved with a system that is simple to use and simple for the public to understand.