Political action committees are important because of their ability to influence the election or defeat of candidates and sway opinion on ballot questions. So when a PAC receives donations or purchases an advertisement, Mainers should be clear about how much money is involved and who is contributing.
The system for how PACs file campaign finance reports in Maine works well to a certain extent, but it can be improved. Voters would benefit from requiring the groups to report more frequently to the state Ethics Commission at certain times in an election cycle and, in the two weeks before an election, provide details about donors.
There are 150 active PACs and four active ballot question committees in Maine that represent diverse interests, such as those pertaining to nurse anesthetists, motorcyclists and people who support or oppose same-sex marriage. Each PAC operating in the state must register with the ethics commission and, in an election year, file a minimum of seven campaign finance reports. Their reports — all public and available online — detail who is contributing to them and how much, in either cash or in-kind donations.
A Republican PAC called Maine Freedom recently made headlines when it purchased television advertisements supporting Democrat Cynthia Dill’s U.S. Senate campaign. Because the race is for national office, the PAC is subject to federal law when filing its reports with the Federal Election Commission. But the ads — scheduled to run until Sept. 2 — raise the issue of how best to ensure that the people potentially influenced by a PAC’s operations know who help pay for them — whether at the state or federal level.
The persuasion push will only intensify as the Nov. 6 election nears, with the two weeks prior being most likely to generate the most ads and mailings. During the 13-day period before an election, a 24-hour reporting requirement kicks in, and PACs must tell the state ethics commission within a day whenever they spend $500 or more. They can submit the report online and must do so even on holidays or weekends.
But here’s where the law doesn’t make sense: Even though PACs operating in Maine have to report how much they’re spending in that 13-day time period, they don’t have to report who is giving them donations. The expenditures are public, but the contributions for those expenditures are not. PACs don’t have to disclose their donors until the next regular reporting date of Dec. 18, which is 42 days after the election.
The way Maine law currently stands, a wealthy person could wait until the 13th day before an election to donate $10 million to a PAC that then runs ads to sway opinion, and he or she wouldn’t be named until more than a month after the election results are known. The donor will be named eventually; what’s the point of waiting until after an election? Mainers should know who is trying to influence their vote in order to make the most educated decision about whom or what to vote for.
Also, the way the filing schedules are currently arranged, there is a gap between the end of July and beginning of October when PACs don’t have to submit a campaign finance report. So if a PAC purchases an ad on July 18, the expenditure wouldn’t have to become public until Oct. 5. It makes more sense for voters to have the information sooner in order to form a more complete opinion. It would not be burdensome for PACs to submit an additional report in that time frame; they are keeping the records themselves anyway.
Naming donors in the couple weeks before an election and adding another reporting period are some specific ways to help improve campaign finance reporting in Maine. The ultimate benefit is for the voter.