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Thursday, October 07, 2004

Elections Should Be About Ideas, Not Dollars

If you are concerned about the way wealthy special interests control government, then you should read the article below. It explains the two local ballot referendums that reform campaign finance laws for county candidates.

The article is written by Susan Wright, a citizen activist who has been the force behind this cause. She unfortunately is battling cancer now and cannot continue her projects while she is being treated, so this issue might not get the exposure it would have otherwise. Please share this article with everyone you know who will be voting in the Nov. 2 election. -- Colin

Alachua County to Vote on Campaign Reform
By Susan Wright
Alachua County residents will have the opportunity to enact their first local campaign finance regulations on Nov. 2. If passed, the reforms would give us a rare chance to reduce the influence of money on elections and, hopefully, on government.

Alachua gained the home rule authority in 2002 to regulate its local campaign finance; but it came with a “use it or lose it” stipulation. To retain this right, Alachua voters must exercise this authority by adopting at least one local campaign finance reform by 2006.

Two local reform measures will appear on the ballot. They are the result of an 18-month study by the county's Campaign Finance Reform Advisory Board (CFRAB). The CFRAB report and recommendations can be viewed at www.AlachuaCampaignReform.org.

If adopted these regulations will apply to candidates running for Alachua county commission, supervisor of elections, property appraiser, sheriff, clerk of court and tax collector beginning with the 2006 elections.

The first ballot item establishes reporting requirements to provide for the auditing and public disclosure of campaign money. It requires financial reports to be submitted in electronic format and provides more time for auditing, correction of mistakes, publication, and public access to the information in the final report before an election.

The second ballot item reduces the amount of money a single contributor may give to a candidate. It does not limit the total amount of money a campaign may raise. It encourages candidates to seek support from a broader base of more modest donations.

Ballot Item 1 – Filing contributor reports
The first ballot item addresses four recommendation made by CFRAB which relate to timely and full public disclosure or transparency of the money behind the campaigns for our local county offices.

CFRAB found that the “current state reporting schedule does not adequately insure public disclosure of campaign finance reports prior to an election; nor does it provide adequate time for auditing of the reported finances; nor the disclosure and remedy of any violations or deficiencies uncovered by an audit prior to the election.”

CFRAB recommended that the last report prior to each election be due 48 hours earlier than currently required by the state. It also recommended the last date by which a candidate may accept money be moved forward accordingly because “In order to provide full public disclosure of the contributions a candidate receives prior to the election, the last date by when a candidate may accept contributions must occur prior to the date that the report is due.”

Under the state rule reports may be unavailable or inaccessible until the day before election day. This is due in large part because of the weekend immediately following the 5pm Friday due date. In primary elections that follow Labor Day, the reports may not be available or accessible until election day due to the holiday.

Moving the report deadline 48 hours earlier ensures the reports will be received and publicly available three working days rather than 1 working day before the election.

CFRAB found that “timely and accurate auditing and publishing of the campaign finances is severely hampered” by paper formatted reports. Handwritten reports are often illegible. They must be converted to digital format in order to be published in printed media or run though computer analysis programs which assist in the auditing of the reports for compliance with state regulations. Retyping handwritten reports into digital format introduces a significant margin for error, adds significant delay in availability of the information for publication, and incurs labor costs.

The State has required all candidates running for state offices to submit their reports in electronic format for several years. The Alachua County Supervisor of Election has asked for electronic formated reports since July 2002 and has provided the necessary software at no cost to effected candidates. Free use of public computers is also available for candidates. Adoption of this ballot item will insure that this requirement persists under future Supervisors.

Ballot Item 2 – Contribution cap
The second ballot item proposes a $250 contribution cap which is half the $500 maximum amount allowed by the state for local, statewide, congressional district, and multi-county district campaigns. The amount of money that individuals, corporations and political committees such as PACs can contribute to the campaigns of candidates seeking office has long been limited by both federal and state regulations.

CFRAB determined that lowering the contribution cap to as much as $200 would not prohibit or impede a candidate from conducting a viable campaign for local county office, but rather would require the candidate to reach out to a broader base of supporters. CFRAB discussed that this would “not only benefit the candidate's campaign, but would also:
  • engage a larger portion of the community in the election process
  • and at the same time reduce the public perception that wealthy donors have a disproportionate influence on those candidates to whom they contribute
  • and increase public confidence in the election process”
Alachua would not be the first Florida county to reduce its maximum allowable contribution amount if this ballot item is adopted. Sarasota County, Florida, established a $200 limit in 1990, and Miami-Dade adopted a $250 limit in 2000.

In recent campaigns, some local candidates have voluntarily adopted lower contribution caps. In 2002 Commissioner Pinkoson raised $84,000 in his successful campaign for county commission from contributions he limited to $250.

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