The Cost of Elections, Pt. 2
Despite their role in transforming politicians into policymakers, Louisiana’s campaign finance laws have an array of perceived and real shortcomings.
By JEREMY ALFORD
PART ONE OF OUR SERIES, “Statewide spending reports show just how expensive power can be — and who benefits,” CAN BE VIEWED HERE.
When it comes to elections, Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t do anything small. When he was first elected in 2008, he made history by becoming the nation’s first Indian-American governor, and, at 36, its youngest at the time. This go around was no different. He entered the 2011 season with more money and a higher national profile than any other chief executive before him.
And, fittingly, the aftermath produced some big results. Jindal garnered more than 65 percent of the vote against 10 challengers. It was a massive win; the highest percentage, in fact, ever won by a candidate since the open primary system was put in place. At the end of the day, Jindal carried all of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. He also raised the bar for campaigns — 800,000 doors were knocked on, 2.6 million phone calls were made and 80,000 hours of volunteer hours were logged.
Of course, none of it came cheap. Jindal’s campaign spent $5.8 million through election day, according to reports filed with the Louisiana Ethics Administration as of Nov. 3. For that, he received 673,239 votes. To put the spending and outcome into perspective, that means if you voted for Jindal last month, your vote was worth $8.61. In theory, that’s how much Jindal spent this year to get one favorable vote to the polls.
It speaks volumes about the amount of money needed to put a candidate into statewide office. For instance, political newbie Donald Hodge spent $9,750 on his failed bid to become insurance commissioner — or roughly 314,417 votes at 3 cents per head. Fellow rookie Tara Hollis, the unofficial Democratic favorite for governor, managed to swipe 182,925 votes from Jindal at a cost of 20 cents per voter.
Aside from the politicos who can fund their own campaigns, Dr. Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says big spending shows that a candidate can haul in big donations, which are individual endorsements. In other words, the dollars are proof that others believe in the candidate’s message.
But there’s also a downside to the equation. “There is something here worth worrying about,” Cross says. “I think there’s a whole group of qualified and interested people who don’t run for office because they can’t cut themselves a large check or they find the idea of raising cash distasteful. Certainly no amount of money can propel a bad candidate, but we’re losing out on potential leaders due to this system.”
TO SEE HOW MUCH MONEY EACH STATEWIDE CANDIDATE SPENT PER VOTER, CLICK HERE
Sometimes it’s quite simple to spot a violation of campaign finance law. Reporting deadlines are easy to track, like the election day spending reports that were due to the Ethics Administration by the close of Tuesday, Nov. 1. Administrator Kathleen Allen says only one statewide campaign missed the deadline: Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s.
Jason Hebert, who managed Schedler’s bid, said Thursday that there were no expenditures by the campaign on election day to report, but they had filed their zeroes with the state anyway. For each day the campaign waited, a fee of $100 was assessed against it — adding up $200.
“The (campaign) treasurer caught the error, sent in the zero report in right away and paid the fine,” Hebert says.
It’s a minimal charge. At the Ethics Board’s October meeting, members considered pleas to waive more than $16,000 worth of late fees, which are routinely decreased or eliminated based on each campaign’s particular arguments. A few of the campaigns even had late filings of 100 days or more. Paperwork and filing errors are sometimes the cost of doing business, if your business is politics.
Other campaign finance violations are tougher to spot. And, unfortunately, state law allows for a bit of smoke and mirrors. One clear example can be found in the way media buys are sometimes described on reports.
While some campaigns offer up a detailed list of the newspapers and stations they’re paying for advertising, others report little more than a bulk figure. Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon was among the incumbents clearly spending money on television, but his expenditure reports show only a set of payments totaling $475,000 going to Mentzer Media Services of Maryland.
How state law permits expenditures to be described in campaign finance reports is one of the culprits here. For instance, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain’s campaign reported more than $4,300 in payments to “Citi Card” for “campaign expenditures.” As for what those expenditures were, Strain’s reports offer nothing more.
Like Schedler’s filing snafu, Strain’s expenditures are more than likely harmless. But they speak to the great unknown, which is still a dangerous thing in Louisiana politics. Sometimes the unknown is nothing; other times everything. The more details provided to voters and citizens, the better chance they have separating fact from fiction.
Moon Griffon, who hosts a popular statewide radio show, says he was approached this election cycle by a “third party” who was a representing a statewide campaign. While the identity of the campaign was withheld, Griffon describes a situation where he was offered thousands of dollars to offer positive words or a hands-off approach to the candidate.
Advertising time is always up for grabs on Griffon’s show, but he says he balked at the pay-for-play. “I’m always careful and skeptical. I have never played that game,” he says. “It’s my business. There have been others, too, in the past. Whether they were joking or serious, I never found out.”
Hypothetically, Griffon could have grabbed the cash and the campaign could have reported it as “advertising.” Or, again in theory, it’s completely possible that the payoff could have come through a consultant who was paid a “consulting fee” by the campaign. That’s all to say that Louisiana’s campaign finance laws can be easily navigated — there are plenty of back canals and secret alleyways.
In all likelihood, there are scores of campaign finance violations that we’ll simply never hear about. That’s because there’s no system in place to audit reports for truthfulness, a shortcoming that has been criticized by the Public Affairs Research Council and the Council for a Better Louisiana.
And that’s why, at least for now, voters and citizens should learn how to access and review campaign finance reports themselves. Until then, the great unknown will continue to be a major cost to our democratic process, albeit incalculable.
THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS RESEARCH COUNCIL has published a tip sheet for delving into campaign finance reports. You can take a look here.
To go directly to the reports, visit THE ETHICS ADMINISTRATION’S site here. You’ll have the option of viewing either electronically-filed reports or scanned reports. You may need to search both categories to get the complete reports for a particular candidate, political action committee or other entity.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.