It’s no secret that our state just came out of pretty rough election cycle. There are a lot of reasons for this, of course. But one of the major reasons is the late reporting – and, in many cases, lack of reporting – by the funders of aggressive campaign activity in tight legislative races.
The public has a right to be concerned about whether the intent of our campaign laws for full transparency in our elections was fully upheld.
In light of the numerous complaints to the state Public Disclosure Commission about undisclosed independent expenditures paying for negative hit pieces and nasty attack ads in the 30th, 38th, 41st, 45th and 48th legislative districts, it’s time the Legislature took up serious campaign finance reform to prevent these kinds of abuses from happening again.
While I believe it is incumbent upon elected officials from both sides of the aisle to move forward and address the challenges we face together, there are some who have different ideas.
Some – including the Senate minority leader – have suggested that the voters in one particular district were duped. They have suggested that voters in the 38th legislative district didn’t know who they were really voting for when they made Nick Harper their first choice in the primary and gave him 60 percent of the vote in the general election.
They have even suggested that, because of the actions of a PAC that didn’t obey state campaign finance disclosure laws, the Senate should move not to seat Nick Harper as state senator – even though Nick Harper knew nothing of this PAC’s activities.
These suggestions are wrong, and I don’t support them. This wouldn’t be fair to Harper – who was given a clear mandate by the voters – and wouldn’t be fair to the voters of the 38th district, who would be denied representation in the Senate for some unspecified period of time.
It’s not the job of legislators to determine the legality of an election. Nor is it the job of legislators to decide what the remedy should be for an election that did violate the law. That’s the job of the courts.
The courts are currently in the process of addressing this issue, and legislators should defer to this process. This is just as true now as it was six years ago, when there was a failed effort to use the Senate to circumvent the legal process and prevent the seating of Chris Gregoire as governor.
The real job of legislators is to develop and pass good legislation that solves problems and helps our communities. Is there a problem in our election system? Absolutely. And the response of legislators should be to suggest improvements.
This is why Senate Democrats are working on a package of campaign finance reform bills that will clamp down on shadow PACs who pour tens of thousands of dollars into a single race without disclosing their funders, strengthen the remedies available when our disclosure requirements are violated, and change the disclosure deadline, so voters have more time to study the information they need about a given race and the groups who are trying to influence it. We’ll be introducing these bills before the 2011 session begins.
But we shouldn’t overturn election results we happen not to like just because we see improvements we can make to the system. After all, the Senate race in the 41st District was even closer than the race in the 38th District. It, too, was the focus of the coordinated effort by a PAC that did not obey our state disclosure laws. The Senate race in the 45th saw tens of thousands of dollars of undisclosed money pay for hit pieces to unseat the incumbent. Should the Senate move to overturn these elections too? Where do we stop?
The appropriate response of legislators to undisclosed PAC money in multiple legislative races throughout the state is to abide by the will of the people as expressed in the results of these elections and to legislate accordingly – not attempt to override their outcome.