Ruth Johnson proposes tough new disclosure rules for campaign attack ads
NOVEMBER 14, 2013
Secretary of State's proposal would close loophole, require ad sponsors
to be identified publicly in state campaign finance records
LANSING, Mich. – Saying the public has a right to know who is behind some of the most negative advertising in political campaigning, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson today proposed a sweeping new disclosure rule.
"In a country where free speech is protected, these ads are part of the political landscape and we can't stop them – but when they try to influence an election, we can make sure the public knows who is paying for them," said Johnson, a long-time fighter for transparency in elections.
Specifically, Johnson's proposal targets political ads that try to persuade voters about the worthiness or unworthiness of a candidate or proposal without actually using the words "vote for" or "elect." They often encourage voters to contact a specific candidate, as in "call candidate Smith and tell her she shouldn't ignore senior citizens" or "go online to let candidate Jones know you care how he is wasting tax dollars."
Because of a loophole in Michigan law, those electioneering ads – which are carefully crafted to meet the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law – do not currently require any campaign finance reporting.
Johnson today proposed a new administrative rule to require sponsors of those types of ads, whether positive or negative, to file formal reports with the state and meet all current campaign finance disclosure requirements. Those requirements would apply for ads appearing in the 30 days leading up to a primary election and in the 60 days leading up to a general election. The proposal would affect all electioneering advertising, including print, online, TV and radio spots.
Some organizations have pushed for limitations on certain groups of candidates, including the State Bar of Michigan, which earlier this year had requested increased disclosure for judicial ads alone.
The Secretary of State's Office today declined their request in a proposed response noting: "There is nothing in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that would allow the Department to create a special carve-out exception for judicial candidates alone."
Johnson said it's time for across-the-board disclosure and transparency to promote integrity in the process.
"This isn't partisan — as it stands now, both sides take advantage of this loophole and get around reporting requirements by implying how voters should vote but never saying it outright with the words 'vote for,'" Johnson said. "The public deserves to know who is funding those ads so they can make an informed decision in the voting booth."
As secretary of state, Johnson has the authority to promulgate new rules through the administrative rules process, which includes public hearings, required cost analysis and other reviews. She submitted a draft proposal today to the state's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the administrative rules process.
Hugh McDiarmid, a longtime political observer, political columnist and former Lansing bureau chief for the Detroit Free Press, was among those who were pleased to see Johnson's proposal.
"In election after election, Michigan voters are swamped with bogus 'issue ads' which are no more than thinly disguised campaign attack ads. The source of the money for these ads is not publicly disclosed. It is high time that Michigan requires full and public disclosure of the donors who fund these ads. Ruth Johnson has stepped forward with a proposal to make this happen. I say, 'the sooner, the better.'"
Johnson has a long track record of fighting for more transparency and accountability in government during her public service career. As secretary of state, she:
- Advocated for and worked with the Legislature to strengthen campaign finance requirements and add harsher penalties for offenders who flout reporting requirements.
- Is working with lawmakers on laws that would require "real time" (within 48 hours) reporting for political contributions and expand reporting requirements for non-election years.
- Has proposed candidates be required to file electronic reports if they raise $5,000 a year (from the current $20,000) and is launching a new system to expand campaign contribution reporting for local and state officials.
- Has always disclosed online, even though she's not required to by law, her own office holder fund contributions and expenditures.
As Oakland County clerk, Johnson put campaign finance records online for easier public access; launched an absentee ballot tracker so voters could track their ballots to ensure they were counted on Election Day; and expanded online election night reporting.
As a state representative, Johnson used rarely granted subpoena power and Michigan's Freedom of Information Act to expose the misuse of school funds by officials. The investigation resulted in board resignations and one leader was sent to jail.
Finally, she used her 2004 farewell speech to the state House as an opportunity to publicly call upon legislators to "bring greater disclosure to the people" by requiring lawmakers and staff members to disclose gratuities and gifts of travel and entertainment.
For media questions, please call Gisgie Dávila Gendreau at 517-373-2520.
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