Imagine this scenario: You’re catching up on the latest news. You learn that your mayor or legislator has made a major decision with which you disagree. Frustrated, you decide to run for office. It’s a long shot. Incumbents have advantages. Name identification. Money. Clout. Connections. Winning seems implausible, but you believe good government requires accountability, and accountability means healthy competition for public office.
There’s a catch. In order to launch your Sisyphean election bid, you are required to disclose your assets and sources of income. And that information would be a matter of public record whether you win or lose. Such a disclosure is quite enough to discourage a person from running for office.
Financial disclosure for both officeholders and candidates, nearly ubiquitous to state and local governments throughout the U.S., is often touted as necessary to improve government ethics and transparency. And it might, were it tied solely to officeholders whose votes and decisions might result in personal financial benefit. Candidates for office, however, hold no power. When financial disclosure is extended to candidates, it’s effects are chilling enough to frequently protect incumbents from serious opposition.
Requiring all candidates to disclose assets, however, is being talked about in Boise.
Also being discussed by legislators is prohibiting both legislators and candidates from raising money during the legislative session. Though said prohibition is being advanced in the name of good government, such a restriction is bound to benefit incumbents, especially those who are well-heeled because of personal wealth or because they’ve managed to accrue large campaign war chests. Imagine again it’s February, the middle of Idaho’s legislative session. You’ve woken up to an inflammatory news headline, one that drives you to want to run for office. Alas, you don’t have any money, and state law forbids you from soliciting campaign contributions, or severely restricts from whom you may ask for contributions. Who would benefit from such a prohibition? The answer: Incumbents.
Lawmakers are also discussing possible legislation that says organizations that merely mention the name of a candidate prior to an election would have to disclose the names of their donors. If this idea becomes law, it would chillingly impact nonprofit groups that educate policymakers on issues, be they tax policy, gun rights, abortion, or the disposition of public lands.
Even civic clubs, churches and the like would be caught in the web of the legislative proposal. Take, for example, an organization that raises money for a project to help the poor. And, anonymous, generous donors put up thousands of dollars toward the project. That same organization then decides to hold a candidate debate and, in the days leading up to an election, spends money to advertise the debate, naming the candidates who will participate. Under the suggested Idaho legislation, the donations to help the poor would have to be disclosed, just because the civic organization decided—even minimally—to enter the public square. Organizations that engage elected officials and candidates, whether or not they fund elections, would be forced to put the names of their supporters on a government list.
For now, I will presume that the unintended consequences of these pending proposals are exactly that—unintended. I will believe that state lawmakers aren’t trying to stifle debate, reduce the number of people vying for office, or make it harder for challengers to run for office. Regardless of their actual intent, legislators still have time to revise their proposals so that they strike a better balance between satiating the public’s desire to know who is financing campaigns and having the effect of silencing critics and ending competition at the ballot box.