Minnesota’s campaign finance board wants legislators to require political groups to name the donors who pay for issue advertisements that stop short of urging support or opposition of a specific candidate during a campaign.
Outside groups that bankroll traditional campaign ads flooding airwaves and mailboxes each election must disclose their spending and funding sources. But other “issue ads,” which talk about a state candidate or issue without using words considered to express advocacy, like vote for, elect, support, defeat or reject, are not subject to the same requirements. That means groups can legally run positive or negative ads about candidates or issues, even in the final days of an election, without saying who is footing the bill.
On Thursday, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board will weigh whether to ask legislators to update the law to trigger donor disclosure for ads that “easily convey support for or opposition to a candidate,” even if they do not explicitly urge a vote in one direction.
Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson said staff began working on the proposal after seeing ads that didn’t meet the current disclosure standards but “certainly would have the intent of trying to influence the election.”
“If something shows up shortly [before] or around the election, why would you send out a mailing talking either positively or negatively about a candidate?” Sigurdson said. “The question is what is this if not to try to influence the election of a candidate?”
George Beck, chairman of Clean Elections Minnesota, praised the board for tackling what he says has become a perennial issue.
“It’s the biggest loophole we have in Minnesota right now for disclosure,” said Beck, a former Campaign Finance Board chairman. “How can we judge the trustworthiness of the message if we can’t see who’s paying for it?”
Others worry that broadening the language could create more confusion. Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said the change could make compliance more difficult and put the board in the position of having to make subjective decisions about thousands of potential ads or mailings.
“Having a new proposal that’s subjective, it seems to me, is unwise. No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, you want clarity,” Weaver said. “No matter where you draw the line, it needs to be a bright line.”
Weaver also worries such changes could have a chilling effect on speech for ordinary citizens and smaller groups looking to speak out about policy as an election nears.
Sigurdson said he believes it’s possible to change the law in a way that will capture offenders seeking to influence campaigns anonymously without curtailing general political speech.
“Express advocacy is a bright line. You either have the words or you don’t. Once you go beyond that, I understand it does make it more subjective, but I think that if the statute can be drafted tightly, it can be clear that we’re not trying to regulate either informational pieces or trying to bring lobbying disclosure into campaign finance,” he said.
Similar standards have been adopted by other states and the Supreme Court, he added.
If approved by the board, Sigurdson will work with the Legislature to try to pass the changes in the months ahead.
A similar measure, introduced by incoming House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, failed in a previous session.
The proposal is one of a number of recommendations under consideration Thursday aimed at modernizing campaign finance laws. The board also wants to clarify whether campaign committees can accept Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Under the proposal, such donations would need to be promptly converted into U.S. dollars.
“You have such a wild fluctuation [in value] that you could have a contribution that would be fine under the contribution limits when donated, but if you don’t convert it for a month, you are over the contribution limits,” Sigurdson said.