The News Tribune
Since 1972, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission has rigorously tracked campaign donations and expenditures while making sure some of the country’s strongest transparency laws are enforced. And the best part? All this PDC information is available for public inspection.
Want to know which local candidate recently spent over $1,900 at one of Tacoma’s most expensive restaurants for a night of fundraising? Or which Washington candidates pocket donations from local developers or big tobacco?
It’s all there on the PDC’s increasingly user-friendly website.
But in our brave new digital age, the watchdog agency’s job has become a lot more complex. Candidates and Super PACs can now buy advertising on scores of web domains, which makes policing them for violations a really big job.
Over the past two years, Washington lawmakers have invested in the PDC to make it more responsive to 21st century challenges. Now the agency wants the 2020 Legislature to go even further -- not with money, but by modernizing rules.
With a pivotal election less than a year away and the integrity of our democratic process under more stress than ever, lawmakers should heed PDC requests to fortify the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act.
No doubt the various disclosure requirements are a headache for candidates who must account for every postage stamp on a campaign mailer. But it keeps them honest, and most are willing to do it.
Starting next month, candidates can look forward to a Turbo Tax-style web tool where mistakes get caught before they become violations; this should be a welcome upgrade for newbie politicians in particular.
Lawmakers can help by authorizing the PDC to streamline financial-reporting requirements, focusing on information that lets the public identify conflicts of interest.
The PDC also wants lawmakers to approve rules to prevent the manipulation of public perception — for instance, holding candidates accountable when they take endorsements from a previous campaign and put them on current campaign materials.
In the news opinion business, we see this kind of deception from time to time, and we’d welcome political operatives having to disclose when they recycle our old endorsements.
A lot of crazy stuff happens in pursuit of public office. And because the campaign-finance landscape has changed so drastically in recent years — thanks to social media platforms and a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United — the PDC has a tough time keeping pace.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal prohibition against independent expenditures (IEs), America found out quickly what happens when corporations and fat cats are allowed to spend unlimited cash on elections: They do it, and negative campaigning explodes.
The PDC reports IE spending in our state has skyrocketed, from $3 million in 2015 to $12 million in 2017. And it doesn’t just flow into marquee statewide races. Between 2015 and 2017, IEs went up 448 percent in Seattle contests, while the most recent Port of Tacoma race saw $186,000 in this spending.
Voters need to know who’s influencing elections, so the PDC wants to make it easier for IEs to get reported.
“We acknowledge that we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole,” Peter Lavallee, the PDC’s executive director, told the Editorial Board last week, “but that doesn’t mean we won’t whack the moles when we see them.”
As moles go, none are more persistent and harder to whack than Google and Facebook; they too have played havoc with election integrity and continue to allow misinformation wars to rage. The PDC has active investigations against both technology titans.
Last year the state slapped them with $200,000 in civil penalties for failure to comply with Washington’s requirement for transparency in online political ads.
For Google and Facebook, that’s budget dust; for the PDC, it’s real revenue that flows into the agency’s “transparency fund,” a dedicated source to pay for website upgrades and other projects to improve public and candidate access.
The PDC envisions building an online repository of political ads — basically, a one-stop shop where voters can see what’s been spent on mass mailings, robocalls, print, broadcast and pop-up ads spread across the digital universe.
But first it needs authority to hire a project manager and tap into transparency funds as they become available.
An upsurge in complaints shows no sign of waning. In 2016, the PDC opened 300 cases on suspected campaign finance violations; in 2018, that number grew to 760. Most were resolved with a reminder or warning.
Lavallee wants the public to know the PDC isn’t a gotcha trap. “The majority of candidates want to do the right thing.”
Sure they do. But in case they don’t, we need a strong PDC to ensure all candidates, consultants, donors, lobbyists and other political players obey the rules.