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Municipal election voters blind to campaign donors

Updated March 13, 2019 - 6:30 pm

By the primary election in early April, candidates stumping for votes in several Nevada cities will have had months to canvass neighborhoods, send mailers and deliver speeches to community groups.

But when election night rolls around, there will be one thing they haven’t had to do: disclose who’s funding their campaigns and how they’re spending the money.

A glitch in a two-year-old bill meant to strengthen campaign finance reporting has actually weakened transparency in eight Nevada cities, the Review-Journal has found, ensuring that voters in Las Vegas and elsewhere will be blind to political donors when casting a ballot this spring.

That is because reporting deadlines that formerly required reports linked to elections now require candidates to file quarterly. Instead of disclosing contributions and expenses 21 days and four days before an election, candidates now only need to submit paperwork 15 days after a quarter concludes.

The first reporting period of 2019 is April 15 — which is 13 days after the April 2 primary election.

“I’ve never seen a change away from the basic minimum level of disclosure, which is at some point before the election, the voters get to see where the candidates’ money is coming from,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, a public policy institute at New York University Law School focused, in part, on promoting campaign finance reform.

The impact of quarterly deadlines this election cycle will be clear: In 2017, there were two reporting periods before the primary election and two before the general. This year, however, there will be just one, wedged between the primary and the general. The three others are scheduled well after elections are decided.

In addition to Las Vegas, other cities holding elections this year will be Boulder City, Caliente, Ely, Fallon, Henderson, North Las Vegas and Yerington.

‘Unintended consequences’

Assembly Bill 45 was introduced in late 2016 on behalf of the Nevada secretary of state’s office, expanding campaign reporting by demanding candidates itemize credit and debit card expenses, list the balance in their campaign accounts and requiring recall organizers to file paperwork even if a recall election doesn’t happen.

The bill passed the Assembly in April 2017. A month later, nine days before it was approved by the Senate, it was heard in the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, where the Democratic chairwoman, state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, proposed what was presented as an amendment to provide more consistency to campaign finance reporting.

Cannizzaro suggested implementing a quarterly deadline for campaign finance disclosures during election years, which would stagger reports evenly throughout a year instead of having irregular gaps between them. After clarifying questions were answered, committee members unanimously signed off.

“Before, some periods were very long, and some periods were very short. So quarterly reporting is more consistent,” Cannizzaro said Wednesday. “But obviously to the extent that any piece of legislation has unintended consequences or doesn’t work for a particular circumstance, that’s what we’re here for, is to look at those things.”

One person who served on that committee said those consequences might have led members to a different outcome.

“I definitely would not have voted for it because I’m a big believer in reporting before the election so people can see,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who was then a state senator. “I’m shocked that we would do that. You think staff or somebody would have pointed that out.”

Odd-year battle

The issue arises, in part, because of a quirk in another Nevada law.

The majority of races in the state — 11 cities and all county, state and federal contests — are held in even-numbered years, with primary elections in June and general elections in November. Under that system, one disclosure will occur before the primary and three before the general.

There is an ongoing legislative effort in Assembly Bill 50, also requested by the secretary of state, to do away with odd-year elections entirely. The bill has been cast as a way to save money and increase voter turnout, although some cities have rejected the idea of municipal races as down-ballot contests, worried they might be overlooked by voters.

Las Vegas, the largest of the eight cities, is remaining neutral on AB50, according to spokesman Jace Radke. Some noted this week, however, the bill would fix the campaign finance dilemma.

“This would resolve the issue of voters going to the polls without having the opportunity to review campaign finance details,” secretary of state spokeswoman Jennifer Russell said.

Doug Goodman, executive director of Nevadans for Election Reform, a group also in favor of even-year elections, said restoring pre-primary election transparency was “another critical reason” to pass the bill.

If AB50 is approved and signed into law, 2019’s would be the last odd-year election in Nevada. To bridge the gap in alignment, those elected in 2017 would enjoy an extended term, with their seats up in 2022.

Information vacuum

A particularly troubling hitch about the new reporting schedule is that candidates can win outright if they receive 50 percent of the vote plus one in a primary, nullifying the need for a general election. It’s possible that voters might elect a candidate to office in the primary without ever knowing who is bankrolling a campaign.

The new quarterly reporting deadlines apply beyond municipal candidates. Political action committees, independent expenditures and ballot question advocacy groups are affected by the new deadlines.

Russell said that while the secretary of state’s office did not set the deadlines, jurisdictions “have no choice but to follow the statute.”

Vandewalker suggested that perhaps candidates might voluntarily disclose campaign finances before the primary election, or the voters may suffer.

“Unfortunately, the voters are going to miss a key piece of information: What the candidate stands for, what interests they support or don’t support,” he said. “And that’s going to make it harder to make an informed decision.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Colton Lochhead contributed to this story.

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