Rhode Island’s campaign finance disclosure law explains its purpose in high-minded democratic terms: “the source of political spending is vital information for voters,” as it “allows voters to properly weigh speakers and messages based on their affiliations.”
That’s a good start.
The problem is one of implementation. Powerful special interests will always try to exert influence in the dark. Unfortunately, for Rhode Island constitutional convention referendum campaigns during the past 20 years, the implementation has failed; dark money has swamped the clean money.
The Rhode Island Constitution specifies that every decade a referendum on whether to convene a constitutional convention must be placed on the ballot. The next such referendum is on the Nov. 4 ballot.
During the last two constitutional convention campaigns, in 1996 and 2004, the no campaign spent the great majority of its money without public disclosure prior to the election, and repeatedly violated Rhode Island’s campaign finance disclosure laws without any type of meaningful penalty. The largest contributors to the no campaign were public employee unions.
The 2004 campaign illustrates the pattern of contemporary constitutional convention politics. Several weeks before the election, a Rhode Island College poll found that the yes campaign was ahead 2:1 (44 percent for, 17 percent against, 26 percent undecided, and 9 percent won’t vote on it). This helped motivate the no campaign to engage in a massive advocacy campaign, including robocalls, signs and TV ads, during the last week before the election. The union expenditures on the ads were not publicly disclosed until after the election.
The final vote was 48 percent for, 52 percent against.
After the election, Operation Clean Government, which led the yes campaign, filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Board of Elections concerning the no campaign’s 11 alleged violations of campaign finance laws. Ten months later, OCG’s chairman, Bob Arruda, wrote to the Board of Elections: “We have yet to receive clarification as to the status of these verified complaints which have gone through rigorous research by OCG’s legal team.”
The chair of the Board of Elections, Roger Begin, explained that the present ballot disclosure laws were “ambiguous and impractical, resulting in an unenforceable law.”
Nine years later, Arruda reports that “sadly, despite modifications in 2006 and 2012, the law remains as ineffective as it was in 2005, when the chair of the State Board of Elections made that statement.”
The campaign that was largely untraceable in Rhode Island during 1996 and 2004 was more transparent for Connecticut’s 2008 constitutional convention referendum. A week before the election, the Hartford Courant published a poll of voters finding that 50 percent favored a yes vote, with 39 percent opposed and 11 percent undecided. Days later, a massive no campaign was launched. Newspaper accounts place the no campaign expenditures at $829,350, of which the public teacher unions alone spent $765,000, with the yes campaign at $12,000.
The last-minute ad campaign, which blitzed the airwaves, depicted a constitutional convention as dominated by special interests: men in business suits smoking cigars in smoke-filled rooms — with no mention of the unions that funded the ads. The referendum was defeated 59 percent to 41 percent.
The root of Rhode Island’s dark-money problem in constitutional convention referendum campaigns is an implicit philosophy that the best enforcement mechanism is the ballot box. That may be an effective mechanism for candidates, who must face elections every few years and have highly skilled opponents motivated to highlight noncompliance. But it has not been an effective mechanism for a constitutional convention referendum, where elections are spread out every 10 years, the names of the players change, records become effectively inaccessible after only a few years, and public ignorance of the institution is sky high.
A new, much more rigorous ballot campaign finance disclosure system is needed for state constitutional conventions. The disclosure systems other states have created for gambling referendums could be a starting point. Since gambling interests are immensely wealthy and will seek to hide their financial influence, gambling referendums often have special and better-enforced campaign finance rules. (Not surprisingly, during 1996 and 2004, a top gambling and labor lobbyist, Guy Dufault, filled out the paperwork for the no campaign.)
Given the public’s remarkable ignorance of the institution of the state constitutional convention and thus vulnerability to massive last-minute ad campaigns, state constitutional conventions need even more rigorous disclosure requirements than gambling referendums.
–J.H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org and maintains the RhodeIslandConCon.info website, including a history of the 1996 and 2004 campaigns. Beverly Clay was Operation Clean Government’s research director from 1993 to 2011.
Source: Snider, J.H. and Beverly Clay, ‘Dark money’ drives R.I. constitutional convention votes, Providence Journal, June 13, 2014.