03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Longmont Elections Show Need for Transparency

The most innocuous and unobjectionable language can obfuscate the obvious:

The people of the city of Longmont find and declare that large campaign contributions to political candidates allow wealthy contributors and special interest groups to exercise a disproportionate level of influence over the political process; that large campaign contributions create the potential for corruption and the appearance of corruption; that the rising costs of campaigning for political office prevent qualified citizens from running for political office; and that the interests of the public are best served by limiting campaign contributions, encouraging voluntary campaign spending limits, full and timely disclosure of campaign contributions, and strong enforcement of campaign laws. (Ord. 0-2000-36 § 1 (part))

And so it creeps down to the local level, too.

The campaign of Barack Obama showed that a candidate can raise huge sums of money through small campaign donations. If McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" has shown us anything, it is that money in elections is inevitable. Money will seep into campaigns in one form or another, regardless of regulations. The more we attempt to regulate campaign finance, the more we create unintended consequences and the more opportunity we create for manipulation.

Drama is playing out in Longmont, where campaign laws thought to prevent corruption by limiting expenditures and contributions is instead corrupting free speech, dividing a community, eating up precious courtroom time and turning the electoral process into a bureaucratic nightmare. Most of the controversy surrounds a provision of municipal code that requires independent expenditures -- $100 or more spent to campaign for or against a candidate without the candidate's knowledge or participation -- must be reported to the City Clerk's office.

Some groups are concerned their issue advocacy may violate the election code and some candidates are using the code to stifle free speech, including investigative reporting. You can read about the controversies here and here. The Huffington Post also linked to a story about the controversy which you can find here.

We can make campaign finance simpler, encourage free speech and expand citizen participation in elections.


By allowing anyone to contribute whatever amount they want to any candidate, cause or issue so long as that contribution is immediately reported to and disclosed by the candidate or local, state or federal election commission.

Full and open disclosure. No games, no manipulation. If someone is willing to give and accept a large campaign contribution, and the associated publicity -- and potential negative perception of that contribution -- then let them do it. If someone can and wants to give more than $100 to exercise their right of free speech in a local election, or more than $2,000 in a federal campaign, let them. Giving -- and the amount -- should be the choice of the giver and the recipient, not some bureaucratic commission that limits free speech or discourages citizens to participate in our electoral processes.

Instead of trying to regulate and control participation in elections, let's open them up, to rich and poor, groups and individuals, and just make it transparent. In this age of transparency, it's time to make elections transparent.