Dark money and disclosure gaps are priorities for new state election chief

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Colorado Sun
Expert

“Campaign finance reform is something that I’ve been talking about for almost the last two years,” said Secretary of State-elect Jena Griswold, a Democrat who defeated incumbent Republican Wayne Williams in November. “I think reform is what the people of Colorado want. In a democracy we do need transparency.”

Griswold is convening a working group to advise her on campaign finance reform as she prepares to take office Jan. 8. And her pick for deputy secretary of state is Jenny Flanagan, who most recently served as a vice president at Common Cause, an organization that advocates for tougher disclosure laws.

The new Democratic-majority at the Capitol also plans to reintroduce campaign finance measures blocked by Republican leaders in the state Senate in recent years. 

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“When you’re going through a dark money nonprofit entity, if that group doesn’t qualify as a political committee, as in a lot of states, they may have to report the actual expenditure, but there’s no requirement for them to reveal their underlying funding sources,” said Austin Graham, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center’s state and local program.

“That seems to be an increasingly popular mechanism for giving immediate transparency to voters about the source of political advertisements, including the funding sources,” Graham said. 

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In Colorado, the liberal nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund gave nearly $10.8 million to various committees, many of them supporting Democrats, in 2018. Workforce Fairness Institute, an anti-union group, donated nearly $4 million to GOP groups. In addition to paying for its own mailers and TV ads mentioning candidates, the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund donated more than $2.7 million to GOP state Senate candidates. In all cases, the actual donors of the money were never disclosed.

“That’s the big problem,” Graham said. “There’s that issue of how do you get to the organizations that are essentially only make making contributions to groups that then run the advertisement?” 

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But in November, Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 75 to allow higher donation limits for candidates when an opponent is self-funded. And the Campaign Legal Center’s Graham said unlimited donations to candidates presents another problem.

“It’s certainly not good for the public’s perception of elected officials if they’re taking six figure checks from special interests with business before the elected official or the state legislature,” Graham said.

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