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Editorial: Add to state election watchdog’s tools to inform

A revitalized Public Disclosure Commission now needs new policy tools to aid in campaign transparency.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It won’t have escaped the notice of many that 2020 — being a major election year with races for the president, Congress, governor and state offices, Legislature and tax and other ballot measures — is also slang for perfect vision; a handy thing for voters.

Fortunately, at least for state and local elections, voters since 1972 have been able to turn to the corrective lenses of the state Public Disclosure Commission to bring into focus the money that goes into political campaigns, where contributions are coming from and how it’s being spent; all intended to provide some context regarding campaigns and keep those campaigns honest as voters consider their choices.

Knowing how much and from what sources a campaign receives its support can provide valuable background regarding a race or issue. In 2018, when voters were considering two initiatives — I-1631, which would have placed a fee on carbon emissions; and I-1634, which sought to bar local governments from taxing sugary soft drinks — record-setting amounts were donated to campaigns regarding both. Soft-drink makers donated more than $20 million to promote I-1634, while the oil industry ponied up more than $22 million to fight I-1631.

Along with providing information to voters, the PDC’s requirements also help campaigns maintain the transparency that most seek to project to voters.

Recognizing the importance of the PDC’s work, state lawmakers have boosted funding to the state agency in recent years to help it carry out its work; since 2017, the agency has increased staffing by more than half to 30 employees, adding to its ability to investigate complaints, advise campaigns on filing requirements and expand its online presence and other IT capabilities.

But as campaigns and their advertising have evolved beyond print and broadcast media, the PDC is recognizing the need to adapt to the changes in how campaigns are reaching out to voters, especially with the plastering of ads seen on Facebook, Google and other online networks.

“We’re calling it PDC 2.0,” said PDC Chairman David Ammons, during a meeting last month with The Herald Editorial Board and reporters.

Along with additional staffing, the PDC has completed upgrades that redesign its website making it easier to use and allowing mobile use; ease online filing of lobbyists’ reports; and the publishing of more than 7 million records to the website.

The PDC also has launched a new partnership with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, joining in its work to confront misinformation and encourage an informed public.

“The landscape is changing so we have to be sure to keep up with the new generation of how voters are being influenced and how they’re getting their information,” said Ammons, who before his work with the PDC was communications director for the Secretary of State’s office and was a veteran reporter for the Associated Press in Olympia.

Among its next steps, the PDC is returning to the Legislature, which begins a 60-day session next week, seeking new policy tools to strengthen the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Along with some housekeeping changes, the requested legislation the campaign watchdog is seeking:

Would allow the agency freer use of its Transparency Fund — into which fines from complaint investigations are paid — for website and other IT projects;

Simplify candidate disclosure filing and remove unnecessary reporting requirements;

And tighten language that will require political advertising to specify the date of political endorsements, a response to one campaign’s attempt to game an endorsement last year, using an old editorial to draw support away from one candidate to someone who had not filed to run in the race that year; and require ads in support of write-in candidates to divulge if the nominees are undeclared candidates for whom votes cannot be legally tallied.

The PDC also is considering another innovative tool for its website, one that would create an online archive of print, broadcast and online political advertising, allowing voters to review the ads and also see what money was spent for the advertising and to get a sense as to the audience the advertising targets.

Several states are considering such searchable archives, said the PDC’s executive director, Peter Lavallee. They’d be of particular use in reviewing online advertising, he said, noting that someone might see one ad on Facebook for a campaign, while their neighbor might see a completely different ad from the same campaign. Comparing the two, Lavallee said, could offer insight into how ads are targeted at voters.

Another legislative ask — one that the editorial board cannot support — would allow the five commission members of the PDC, who are selected by the governor to five-year terms, to participate in campaigns and advocate for legislation outside of the areas subject to the PDC’s review, such as national and out-of-state issues and races. The PDC has said this is necessary to provide a wider selection of nominees to the commission, but it could tend to cloud the public perception of the commission as a nonpartisan advocate for state residents.

In an era when trust of public officials and politics can be a tough sell, Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission — born in the same “sunshine” era as the state Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act — works to preserve public trust in political campaigns and encourage participation in voting and the public processes of government.

The state PDC also stands in contrast to the Federal Elections Commission, the agency that has been made toothless by the inaction of the Trump administration and Congress; following recent resignations of its commissioners, the panel is without a quorum and cannot enforce federal election law, provide guidance or conduct audits. Because of that lack of leadership, you can’t spell “feckless” without FEC.

To further strengthen elections and public trust — at least at the state and local levels — state lawmakers should look to further strengthen the investment they have made in the PDC by adopting the requested legislation, with the exception noted.

And voters, before marking their ballots this year, should include some time on the PDC website as they make their choices.

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