Maine jumps to ‘A’ for state political spending disclosures

Maine’s one of 11 states with the most stringent financial disclosure requirements for outside political groups seeking to influence your vote, according to a campaign spending watchdog group.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics gave Maine a perfect score in a report today for disclosure requirements from independent groups in state elections. It’s alongside Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah in that group.

And that group knows well — their campaign finance search tool launched this year is excellent for state-level campaigns, though they have not yet launched the searches for independent expenditures (that’s when an outside group says “vote for this person” or “don’t vote for this person”).

An independent expenditure has to include “express advocacy” of a candidate, clearly identifying them and the office he or she seeks. (“Issue ads,” telling you how an individual person has been strong on crime or has cared for the nation’s children can evade that disclosure requirement without too much trouble.)

Maine made out much better in the rankings from one year ago, benefitting also from the addition of a new category asking states whether they require independent groups to report their donors. The score also tallies whether the state requires outside groups to disclose the targets of their spending and whether they supported or opposed that given candidate.

Overall, independent expenditure disclosure scores went up 20 percent across the states.

But, of course, there are devils in the details.

For instance, some states don’t require outside groups to separate political ad spending from their other spending. So, paying a political consultant to produce a radio ad might just appear as paying a consultant.

Notably not included in the rankings, the report doesn’t address user friendliness for campaign finance reports.

In Maine, the system has a bit of a learning curve and faces challenges I don’t think are unique to the state (but I’m not certain about that). For instance, there might be five different ways that a particular group writes the name of someone they paid to air an ad, and each outside group might write out descriptions of their spending in different ways.

That can pose a challenge for quick and standard accounting for someone who is, say, trying to report on outside groups doing the most spending and finding out what they’re buying.

The question of user friendliness gets to a broader issue of governmental transparency in the digital age: the record exists, but how easy is it to access?

That issue came up this past election cycle, when the database download of outside spending did not include the target of a group’s spending or the party of the candidate targeted (and a few other fields).

It was a simple oversight and the Maine Ethics Commission staff was helpful in getting those fields added for a reporter on deadline, but there’s something to be said for a trial run.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.