Open and transparent elections are key to a successful and functioning democracy. Transparent elections allow voters to trust the outcomes of our election system. A crucial component of fair and transparent elections is campaign finance.
Campaign finance refers to the laws and rules that govern how a candidate can collect money and from whom. All fifty states recognize that being able to track and regulate how campaign donations happen is key to a healthy democracy. Each state mandates that candidates report their contributions and expenses while pursing office. Most states also limit how much an individual donor can give to a candidate based on the office they are seeking. These laws seek to allow candidates to raise the needed money for a race while trying to reduce any corruptive influences.
Campaign finance is less restrictive on a national level. Following the 2010 landmark Supreme Court case of Citizens United, unlimited outside spending was established as constitutionally protected free speech. The ruling allowed for a maximum of $5,200 donation directly to a candidate and unlimited contributions to super PACs (Political Action Committees). These PACs are able to spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates. Since this ruling, our national elections have been awash in cash from corporations, PACs, unions, and others. Often, these donations are anonymous and their contributions have affected and influenced elections throughout the United States.
Within Utah, campaign finance has taken a back seat. Our campaign finance laws are weak and rarely enforced. Like other states, all candidates and political parties are required to provide a record of donations and expenditures or risk being punished. However, these punishments are insignificant (typically a matter of paying a small fee) assuming there is punishment at all.
Additionally, most campaigns both in and outside Utah are a costly endeavor. It is typically only the wealthy or well-connected who can gather the needed funds to pursue public office. Those from poorer backgrounds or with limited funds find that they are unable to make a credible bid, even if they possess exceptional skill or ideas for serving in government. Utah must strengthen its campaign finance laws and encourage a level playing field for all candidates as well as reducing the influence of wealthy donors, special interest groups, and other organizations. It is the ordinary voter who should influence the outcome of an election and not money.
Utah should seek to promote campaign finance reform by:
- Increasing Transparency: Utah should continue to require a detailed report from all candidates, parties, PACs, and political organizations to be made publicly available at regular intervals. Additionally, the state should seek to conduct a randomized audit of these groups to encourage adherence to campaign laws and promote transparency.
- Public Financing: Utah should establish a mechanism that would allow more citizens to equally compete for public office by creating a system that would provide public funds to candidates who are willing to meet criteria established by the state to compete for office. This would help to encourage a broader demographic to participate in running for office in Utah. I would help to change the stereotype that public office in Utah is for old, white men.
- Enforcement: Utah should encourage adherence to state finance laws through rigorous enforcement. Punishment for violating laws should be increased. Additionally, a team for enforcement should be created within the elections office that is given the power to track and enforce state campaign finance laws.
The integrity of our campaigns and election systems is paramount. We need transparent and fair elections in Utah. Instituting stronger campaign finance laws in Utah will help to ensure that the public is aware of how money influences candidates and that voters can trust the results of Utah elections.