Friday, July 02, 2010

How We Can Save Democracy in Maryland, Part Two

By Marc Korman.

In Part One, I reviewed District 14 Delegate candidate Eric Luedtke’s thesis about the need for campaign finance reform in Maryland and one idea for reform. Today I will look at a few more potential reforms.

Cultural Shift

District 16 Delegate candidate Ariana “Tornado” Kelly suggested to me that a cultural shift could be one solution. All Democrats use union shops for their printing. That is part of the Democratic Party culture. So why not make campaign finance part of the Democratic culture, at least for primaries?

At the federal level, Democrats used to have a public financing culture, at least for presidential candidates. From 1976 to 2004 using the public financing system established in the wake of Watergate was the norm for Democratic Presidential Primary candidates. That ended in 2004 when Howard Dean opted out. John Kerry followed suit, as did Obama and Clinton in 2008. Obama also became the first Republican or Democratic presidential nominee to opt out of the public financing system for the general election.

Locally, District 17 State Senate candidate Cheryl Kagan has made her “Clean Seventeen” pledge that limits her own donations. One legislative candidate told me privately they could try and make an issue out of having less funding than some of their opponents to appeal to progressives. District 16 candidate Kyle Lierman has pledged to take no state or federal PAC money. If these efforts prove effective, maybe that will start a trend of Democrats voluntarily embracing less expensive campaigns.

Unfortunately, past individual pledges have not led to a broader cultural shift. Jamie Raskin does not take corporate money and Marc Elrich does not take developer funds, but that has not started a stampede of candidates following their lead.

Better Transparency

The easiest reform would be to improve transparency. Except Clarence Thomas, who even believes disclosure is too much government regulation, people of all political stripes pay lip service to improving disclosure and transparency. At the federal level, Congressman Van Hollen’s imperfect DISCLOSE Act sought, among other provisions, to strengthen disclosures of who is funding political ads. Republicans, as has become typical, failed to put their money where their mouth was and all but two voted against it.

At the state level, there are some improvements that could be made. Although it would make the job of campaign treasurer more difficult, I would like to see a publicly accessible database showing donations in almost as real time as possible. If a candidate receives a donation, that should be uploaded within some set period of time so the public can see it if they choose to. Thanks to the University of Maryland the state already has a useful database for reports, but it should be shifted to real time. Maryland already has a fairly lax process for amending reports and that should continue for honest mistakes made in the name of faster reporting.

Short of that, there is currently a black hole in Maryland campaign finance reporting schedule between January and August. With an early September primary, where many of the political decisions are made depending on the district, that is most of the election. Maryland should require at least one additional report during that time so reports can be scrutinized and be a part of the political debate where appropriate.

Luedtke is right. We need campaign finance reform. These are just a few ideas, none mutually exclusive, to pursue that goal.