Fifty years ago this month, a band of good-government advocates fed up with secrecy in government and deteriorating public faith in politics took their cause to the Washington electorate, submitting 162,710 signatures to qualify Initiative 276 for the ballot.
Voters endorsed the sweeping effort to shed light on money in politics. The law they passed in 1972 (I-276), which established campaign-finance regulation in Washington and created the Public Disclosure Commission, remains a seminal achievement in the power of ordinary citizens to protect the integrity of our democratic system.
Just last month Washington’s campaign finance laws were ranked best in the nation by the Coalition for Integrity, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes transparency and accountability.
The PDC has dutifully carried out its responsibility to serve as the protector of the public’s right to follow the money for the last 50 years. Looking ahead to the second half century, the PDC’s charge is greater than ever in light of growing threats to the public’s ability to maintain oversight over political campaigning and governmental affairs.
Over the past year alone, we’ve seen federal courts dismantle campaign contribution limits in Alaska, strike down a California charitable donor disclosure in a way that could undercut efforts to trace dark money, and overturn a federal anti-corruption law that barred candidates from repaying themselves large campaign loans.
Such developments can have a chilling effect. As Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson told The Seattle Times, a potentially unfriendly reception at the U.S. Supreme Court weighed heavily in his decision earlier this year to settle the Grocery Manufacturers Association case — a blatant case of concealment, the worst kind of campaign finance violation — rather than fight the appeal of a state court’s $18 million penalty. Under the settlement, the Consumer Brands Association will pay $9 million, including $6 million to the state and $3 million to state food charities.
I believe Washington’s campaign finance laws — both the framework provided by I-276 and the additions since from voters and state lawmakers alike — can overcome these challenges. But campaign cash, like water, doesn’t stop finding new ways to flow, and the law can’t stop evolving to chart its course.
Washington state has done much already to adapt, adding disclosure requirements for the rising class of politically active nonprofits and expanding sponsor identification laws to reveal the big donors behind a PAC’s political advertising.
Disclosure should be the focus for future efforts, too. Information has always been, and continues to be, the primary antidote to the influence of money on government. However, to keep pace with these changes, Washingtonians need more and better tools to get information about the interests that are trying to influence government decision-making.
To that end, we at the PDC have been asking some questions about the existing system, questions such as:
∙ In a day when voting begins weeks before Election Day, does it make sense that we have the same reporting schedule we have had since the 1980s? Voters cast ballots on their own schedules and the campaign disclosure must remain timely to be relevant throughout the voting window.
∙ How much information should the public have about how campaign advertising targets voters? And how effectively can the public access the data directly from the companies that sell that advertising, especially in the growing market of online advertising? I-276 was ahead of its time in allowing the public to get details about a political ad buy directly from the television station or print shop providing the service. The commission has invested considerable effort over the last couple of years applying the same level of transparency to digital platforms.
· Should the public know up front the identity of a group that seeks to leverage public support to pass or defeat legislation? Under existing law, that disclosure might not happen until weeks after the lobbying campaign — and even a legislative session — is over.
These and other questions will guide our work to keep the law relevant for the coming years. But we also know that accountability and transparency cannot be fully advanced by government officials alone.
History tells us that most consequential change comes from people like Jolene Unsoeld, who, before she was a member of Congress, worked from outside the system to not only sponsor I-276 but also to later compile an exhaustive summary of early campaign reports. She warned that such work “must be produced in the future if Initiative 276 is eventually to do the job for which it was designed.” Today, even as the PDC makes available millions of records online, it continues to strive to hit that mark as it works to be more than a repository.
To the Jolene Unsoelds of today, I say: Do not take Washington’s enviable position for granted. Public support for maintaining and strengthening open government is as critical as ever, as is the exercise of access. Arm yourselves with the information those I-276 agitators and others who followed fought to provide you so that if someone tries to tell you the information doesn’t matter or doesn’t need reform, you know better.