Five Ways to Make Illinois Elections Fairer
A handful of small improvements to Illinois campaign finance law would make statewide elections fairer and more transparent
On last Wednesday’s Chicago Tonight, Carol Marin hosted a panel of experts to answer the question, “Is Statewide Spending on Elections Going Too Far?” (Yes.) Two days prior, Ameya Pawar was interviewed by Phil Ponce and said he’d been priced out of the gubernatorial election. (He was.)
As a fundraiser, I view campaign finance law fairly objectively. It’s a set of parameters in which one operates. As an informed citizen, however, I‘m not as objective. I’m deeply concerned that Illinois (and America) is becoming a plutocracy. As Marin put the question on Wednesday, “Have we reached a point where only millionaires and billionaires need apply when running for statewide office?” (My professional opinion? Yes.)
But being concerned only gets us so far, so here are five simple ways we could improve Illinois campaign finance law, put candidates on a more equal footing, and provide citizens better information about how election dollars are raised and spent:
1.) Close the loophole that allows the very wealthy to self-fund without breaking the contribution caps.
As I explained in a previous post, there’s a loophole in Illinois campaign finance law that allows wealthy candidates to donate an unlimited amount of money to themselves while still imposing contribution limits, or “caps,” on every other candidate. You can read more about this loophole, and why it’s important to fix, here:
And why it matters in the 2018 gubernatorial racemedium.com
2.) When a member of the Illinois General Assembly decides to run for statewide office, require them to open a separate campaign account and prohibit their General Assembly campaign money from automatically transferring over to the statewide campaign account.
Campaign election cycles are different for General Assembly members (state house and state senators) than they are for statewide office holders. General Assembly (GA) campaigns are governed by annual-ish campaign cycles. But statewide offices are subject to a three-year-ish Primary Election cycle. Because of this, a GA member who runs for statewide office can raise three times as much money as a statewide office holder. How? This chart explains:
So if, say, a GA member received a max-out contribution from Generous Jane in 2015, again in 2016, and again in 2017, and then declared he was running for statewide office, the GA member could bank $16,800 from Jane. But a statewide elected official, or a declared statewide candidate, could only ask Jane for $5,600 during the same three-year period. In a state where primary elections are highly competitive, and sometimes the whole ball game, that is no small advantage.
Requiring candidates to open separate campaign accounts isn’t a new idea. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) already requires congressional office holders to open a new campaign account when they declare an intention to run for president. Their congressional campaign funds do not transfer over to the presidential account. But in Illinois, a candidate only has to file a form, known as a D-1 report, to amend the purpose of their campaign and indicate they’re seeking statewide office. They can keep every dollar in their account and apply it to their run for statewide office. This creates an unleveled playing field, especially for first-time statewide candidates.
3.) When a candidate changes the office they seek from a caps-broken race to a caps-intact race, require them to return the money they’ve raised above and beyond the caps.
Contribution caps can be lifted, or “broken,” when a candidate self-funds above a certain threshold: $250k for statewide races; $100k for every other race. The caps can also be lifted if an independent expenditure spends money against a candidate above those same thresholds. When this happens, the caps are lifted for all candidates running in that race.
So if a candidate were to run in a race in which the caps were broken, and then a month later switch to a race where the caps were intact, this would give that candidate an unfair fundraising advantage. Seems obvious that this shouldn’t be allowed, right? Except it’s not prohibited in Illinois campaign finance law. It’s also not a hypothetical.
4.) Change reporting requirements so that campaigns must disclose when a donor contributes $1,000 or more in aggregate during an election cycle.
When a campaign accepts a single contribution worth $1,000 or more, they must disclose the contribution within five business days of receipt. This high-dollar contribution report is known as an A-1 filing.
But some campaigns have utilized, ahem, creative reporting tactics. In 2011, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform released a report citing what appeared to be some campaigns’ penchant for asking donors to break their contributions into multiple, smaller donations to avoid filing A-1 reports. Tweaking the law to require the reporting of aggregate donations of $1,000 or more would create a greater level of campaign finance transparency.
5.) Stop allowing campaigns to report unitemized contributions and expenditures.
Illinois finance law allows campaigns to forgo disclosure of any contribution or expenditure that is $150 or less. Instead, they’re allowed to report these donations or expenditures in a lump sum under the “not-itemized” sections of a quarterly finance report. The thinking behind this rule is that donations or expenditures below that amount are not significant enough to warrant the time and expense of tracking and reporting them. I disagree.
First, as demonstrated above, a campaign can get pretty creative with how they receive or disburse campaign funds to circumvent transparency rules. If I wanted to donate $5,600 to a campaign without it being made public, well, I’d have to start making way more money or win the lottery. But then I could simply set up a recurring contribution to donate $150 every day for 37 days. The same is true for expenditures: a campaign could cut multiple small checks to avoid reporting a big expense. Is that time-consuming? Sure. But if a campaign was determined to do so, it could easily abuse the unitemized rule to mask who was giving or receiving funds.
Second, this rule only made sense before the invention of donation tracking software. It takes a fundraiser the same amount of time and effort to enter a $100 contribution into a database as it does a $1,000 contribution. And it takes the same time and effort to click a button to produce a quarterly campaign report that contains all of a campaign’s donations as it does to produce a report that contains only some of them. (Well, assuming the software doesn’t malfunction…)
Some campaigns report every dollar they receive or spend, but most are still utilizing the unitemized rule. What are they hiding? Most likely, not much, but we’ll never know, and it doesn’t look great.
Undoubtedly, there are structural problems in our system that will require much bigger solutions, but these five issues are low-hanging fruit. Resolving them would lead to increased transparency and fairer financing of campaigns.
Finally, as I’ve said before and as I’ll keep saying until I’m blue in the face: Them’s the rules until they ain’t. If you read this and get distracted by which individual candidates are using the law to gain an edge, you’re missing the point entirely. The rules are the problem, not necessarily the candidates or campaigns that are savvy enough to work within them.
Gina Natale spends a decent amount of her free time thinking about campaign finance. The opinions, snark, and bad jokes expressed in this blog are hers and hers alone. They do not represent the views of her current employer, any former employers, any political party, or any person not named Gina Natale.
In the interest of full disclosure: Gina made a handful of small donations to Ameya Pawar’s gubernatorial campaign. Her donations were unsolicited.
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