On campaign finance

Published: September 24, 2020

Author: Luann D'Agostino

I’m not a narc, but I need to vent a bit about some campaign-finance violations that I’ve been seeing.

Before I do that, I want to talk about why campaign finance laws are important. Everything that you see regarding the upcoming election costs money: road signs, yard signs, billboards, TV ads, radio ads, mail, and even the pieces of paper that people stuff in your front door. Our district has a little under 20,000 voters, so even just sending every voter a piece of paper with some information will cost thousands of dollars.

That money has to come from somewhere. Typically, it comes from the candidate’s political committee. Every candidate, when she registers to run for office, has to form a political committee for the campaign. This committee has all kinds of filing requirements with the state (you’ll hear candidates begging you for money before such-and-such filing deadline), and its reports are generally made public (some details are scrubbed, but the names and addresses of donors are kept, as well as the names and addresses of where any campaign money went). Cool. With this information, you can see who’s donating to which candidate, how the candidate is spending her money, and what physical stuff (T-shirts, yard signs, etc.) she has. The candidate committee must include the candidate’s name, and often starts with “Friends of” or “Committee to Elect”. This makes it clear that it’s a candidate committee and not one of the other kinds.

Those other kinds of committees could be party committees (such as the state’s Democratic party) and PACs (political action committees), and while the rules are different, the same general idea applies: anything going into or coming out of a political entity must be tracked and reported.

So, back to money: any printed piece of advertising that a campaign creates and distributes must state who paid for it (anything larger than 3-inches-by-3-inches, at least). This is that little “paid for by …” box that’s on the bottom of all of those things. You can read more about those fun rules here. The “paid for by …” text has to be in a little box and be “clearly readable”. There are font point-size requirements for smaller things, but for anything over 2-feet-by-3-feet, the text has to be at least 5% of the height of the advertisement. All this is to say that, legally, it must be very clear (1) that the advertisement is, in fact, a political advertisement, and (2) who is paying for it.

It’s not a lot to ask, and it’s kind of like nutrition facts for politics. (It’s not as awesome as this Californian proposal, which would require legislators to display the names of their largest donors on their clothing, similar to sponsor logos on NASCAR jackets.)

A key purpose that these campaign-finance laws serve is to force a differentiation between elected officials running for election and the state itself. Yes, a sitting representative can run for re-election, but the state of Delaware will not endorse any candidate. By forcing all advertising to say who’s paying for it, it becomes perfectly clear that such advertising (be it in the form of a road sign, a pamphlet, whatever) is just that: advertising. Whatever you say in your ad, at the bottom there will be a big box that says “paid for by …”, making it clear that it is not an official communication from the state. And the bigger your ad, the bigger the box.

Anyway, I’m new to all of this. My team and I pored over the laws and regulations before even thinking about what we might want to do during the campaign, and we triple-checked every one of our advertisements before sending them to print. Maybe we’ve made some mistakes; there are some gray areas, and the Department of Elections doesn’t really answer questions—they just refer you back to the same sections of the law.

But here’s the thing: Mike Smith has done this all before, multiple times (starting in 2014 when he ran against Joe Miro), and yet he ignores the rules. As a sitting state representative, he’s currently violating campaign finance law, and he thinks that nothing bad will happen to him. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he, like fellow-Republican Scott Walker, has factored the cost of breaking the law into his budget.

He has recently begun distributing pamphlets, plastered with his name and logo, telling his constituents to re-elect him. That’s all fine on its own; that’s what a campaign advertisement looks like. But there is no “paid for by …” anywhere on the pamphlets. Without that, it doesn’t look like an advertisement; it looks like official communication from State Representative Mike Smith, which it is most-certainly not.

This, in addition to his 4-foot-tall road signs that only have the “paid for by …” at 1.3% of the height (not the 5% as required by law) demonstrate a willful disregard for campaign-finance law and the ethics that underlie it. At best he is ignorant and at worst he is willfully negligent, and neither is a quality that I look for in a state representative.