Campaign transparency hit new lows in Michigan in 2010

Decade of lost accountability saw $70 million off the books

LANSING – Nearly $23 million in unreported television advertising in 2010 statewide election campaigns pushed the state total of undisclosed candidate-focused “issue” advertising to almost $70 million since 2000.

Those data were compiled by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network in a new report released today titled, $70 Million Hidden in Plain View – Michigan’s Spectacular Failure of Campaign Finance Disclosure, 2000 - 2010.

Three candidates won television-driven statewide elections in 2010 without buying broadcast advertising of their own. They are Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Virg Bernero. All three were totally dependent on their political party for their advertising campaign, and the parties reported nothing about the Johnson campaign or the Bernero primary campaign. The Michigan Republican Party reported $650,000 of its $3.4 million television campaign supporting now-Justice Kelly and her fellow Republican nominee, now-Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr.

The Michigan Department of State does not require advertisers to report their spending or the sources that enable it unless the advertisements explicitly suggest voting. Despite the fact that neither the words nor the concept of “express advocacy” are found in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, the interpretation that says only express advocacy is a campaign expenditure allows campaign advertisers to report nothing and the Department of State to turn its blind eye.

“The United States Supreme Court recognized that there is a functional equivalent of express advocacy in its 2007 decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The Department of State’s interpretation remains firmly rooted in the jurisprudence of the last century, to the extreme delight of the interest groups and individuals who want to buy election outcomes without leaving fingerprints.”

Among the major 2010 statewide campaigns, only the Republican gubernatorial primary had a disclosure rate above 55 percent. Ninety-two percent of the Republican primary spending was reported.

“When Congressman Pete Hoekstra was being knee-capped by Americans for Job Security – whoever they were, I’ll bet he never dreamed he was in the midst of the best-disclosed state campaign of 2010,” Robinson said.

The gubernatorial general election, like the Supreme Court campaign, was a case where there was more spending off the books than was disclosed. The Michigan Democratic Party spent $4.3 million on ads supporting Bernero while the Republican Governors Association spent $3.6 million supporting now-Gov. Rick Snyder. Unreported spending in the gubernatorial general election overshadowed that which was reported, $7.9 million to $6.9 million. The RGA’s ads supporting Snyder included B-roll of Snyder recycled from the candidate’s own primary ads. California-based Target Enterprises was Snyder’s ad agency for the primary and the RGA’s agency for the general.

“The gubernatorial general election was not a different kind of politics,” Robinson noted. “It was the same old same old: Secret spenders, no accountability.”

The Republican Governors Association pressured several television stations around the state to withhold records of its ads from their public files. MCFN estimated those stations’ sales based on a decade’s worth of market-share data.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network supports full disclosure of all campaign spending and the contributions behind it. Polling consistently shows that voters do, too.

“Disclosure helps voters to evaluate the messages they receive in the course of a campaign, and disclosure is critical for controlling the corruption of quid pro quo politics,” said Robinson.

“Disclosure is particularly critical in Supreme Court campaigns, so all parties can be sure that their due process rights to an impartial court hearing have not been usurped by some unreported campaign expenditure by an unidentified participant in their case. With over half the money flowing off the books in our Supreme Court campaigns, the exposure to that sort of problem is enormous.”

The 2010 case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission included an 8-1 vote that thoroughgoing disclosure is constitutionally permissible, whether the requirement is applied to express advocacy, the functional equivalent of express advocacy or authentic issue advocacy.

Authentic issue advocacy, which involves an effort to evoke grassroots lobbying of an official who can affect a public policy, is an obvious fiction in Supreme Court campaigns. Judges are not lobbyable officials under Michigan law.

“Our campaign finance disclosure system is highly dysfunctional,” Robinson said. “Citizens should demand that elected officials fix it.”

Note: Denise Langford Morris, a 2010 Supreme Court candidate, amended her campaign finance reports on June 6, when $70 Million Hidden in Plain View was at the printer. Morris now reports having raised $250,000 more than she had previously reported. While this is a substantial change in Morris's campaign profile, it makes a limited difference in the profile of the overall 2010 Supreme Court campaign. The revised Dashboard of Campaign Finance Accountability will show 44.7% disclosure for the overall campaign, rather than 43.5%. The changes reported by Morris will be reflected in revisions to the pdf version of the report in the coming days.

Press Release 2011 News