When it comes to telling voters who is spending money on political ads, Iowa fails.
It got an “F” in a recent study on state disclosure policies for political spending by independent groups, or groups not connected to political candidates. Iowa was among 25 other states that received failing grades.
This kind of anonymous spending threatens the transparency of elections, said Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University.
If a group spends $10,000 on ads, voters have no way of knowing where the $10,000 came from. The donor might exert influence over the candidate, and lack of proper disclosure makes “it much easier for that influence to impact the electoral process without anyone knowing what is going on,” he said.
The study shows this kind of spending goes largely unregulated, with few states requiring groups to turn in detailed reports on how they spent their money and where it came from.
The 50-state study was conducted by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that investigates campaign finance at the state level.
Iowa’s failing grade means the state’s disclosure laws are not as strong as the federal laws for independent spending in national elections.
Sanders said he wasn’t surprised by Iowa’s dismal showing.
“We have strong disclosure requirements for candidates, but once you move away from the candidates, it becomes spotty,” he said.
Researchers graded states on a 100-point scale based on how much information is provided to the public about the groups buying political ads.
State laws were compared to federal requirements for national elections. To receive an “A,” state laws had to set the same standards as federal laws. In some cases, states went beyond the federal laws. Three states — Alaska, California and North Carolina — require groups to list their top donors in some political ads.
Iowa earned 40 out of 100 points.
Researchers said Iowa lost points because the law does not require all organizations to disclose spending, leaving citizens and researchers wondering exactly how much was spent in campaigns.
Of the information that is disclosed, organizations are not required to report the position they took in their ads or mailings, meaning there’s no way to know what candidate or issue they supported.
Iowa’s grade wasn’t the lowest in the study. Six states — Alabama, Indiana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota and South Carolina — scraped the bottom of the barrel, receiving zero total points in the survey.
The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board handles the paperwork from groups reporting independent spending. The board did not respond to numerous calls and emails.
A report by Iowa PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, shows outside spending increasing six-fold between the 2008 and 2012 congressional elections.
In 2012, outside spending on Iowa's four U.S. House races totaled roughly $12 million.
“So much of Iowa’s money came from out of state. It’s really a perversion of the democratic process. It makes it difficult for voters to find accurate information," said Sonia Ashe, a consumer advocate with Iowa PIRG. "It’s hard to make informed decisions behind the wall of ads.”
Over the past few years, efforts by lawmakers to reform campaign finance policies have stalled.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, and Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, sponsored a bill known as Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections, or VOICE, earlier this year.
The bill would have set up a public financing system for Iowa candidates who agreed to campaign spending limits. Under the bill, candidates could not accept donations from political actions committees, PACs.
“We have a right to know who is invested in campaigns and buying advertising. Right now it is roller derby style politics,” Jochum said.
The bill was also supported by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a liberal advocacy group.
Adam Mason, state policy organizing director for the group, said political ads purchased by interest groups are often negative and can steer conversations away from important issues.
“Candidates should spend more time talking about bread-and-butter issues, but unfortunately many of these ads are on hot-button issues. They tend to polarize elections and pull attention away from issues like state budget and true education reform,” he said.
Influence in judge retention votes
For the most part, elections between two candidates with plenty of funding are not strongly influenced by outside groups. Low profile, local elections are more susceptible to outside money.
“In retention votes or ballot initiatives, spending by these groups can have an enormous influence. Those are the kinds of elections in which citizens know less. They don’t have the anchors of party to show them how to vote, so spending can have a more direct impact,” Sanders, the Drake professor, said.
Under Iowa’s merit-based system, judges are selected by a nonpartisan commission and appointed by the governor. At the end of each term, judges are placed on the ballot and voters can decide whether or not to keep a judge in office.
The retention vote gained national attention in 2010, when groups campaigned to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court justices. The justices were involved in the 2009 decision that struck down Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act, legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
During the election, five out-of-state groups spent nearly $1 million purchasing an onslaught of ads and mailers.
Among the organizations that sponsored the ads was the National Organization for Marriage, Washington, D.C.-based organization that spent $635,628. Republican Newt Gingrich, a 2012 presidential hopeful, gave $150,000 to the anti-retention effort.
In the election, justices Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker were unseated.
“They put a million dollars in a retention vote, when up to that point there had never been any money before. Yeah, it had a big impact,” Baker said.
Baker said the justices knew they would be facing strong opposition, but made a “deliberate choice” not to raise money or form campaign committees.
“We believe politics should not be part of the court system,” he said. “You don’t want judges looking over their shoulders when they are making rulings. You don’t want judges owing favors to one side or the other. You don’t want people coming into court thinking that they won’t receive a fair ruling because the people on the other side gave money to support the judge.”
A similar effort in 2012 to unseat Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins was unsuccessful.
“I think people also realized that our decision in 2009 did not bring an end to civilization and the tide is changing on the issue (of same-sex marriage),” Baker said.
Reform a "partisan issue"
Sanders worried that the influence by these independent groups could have both long-term and short-term impacts on Iowa politics.
In the short-term, the barrage of ads could influence who wins or loses an election. Long-term, the negative ads could “turn people off the whole political system…so that people decide to tune out entirely, they don’t go out and vote,” he said.
However, he doubted Iowans would see campaign finance reform anytime soon because legislation would have to pass through a split legislature and gain the approval of a Republican governor.
“Since even disclosure has become a partisan issue, it’s hard to know how we’d get a bipartisan agreement,” he said.
Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said the issue wasn’t partisan.
“Greater accountability and transparency is needed when these groups come in and fill our airwaves with misleading ads and untruths. We need to disclose who is actually funding them,” he said.
For Branstad, the issue of outside spending in elections strikes home, Albrecht said.
“The governor himself was targeted during the (2010) primary by a shady out-of-state group,” he said.
The group, Iowans for Responsible Government, released a series of ads labeling Branstad as too liberal and likening him to Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.
Branstad won the three-way Republican gubernatorial primary with 50 percent of the vote.
After the primary, reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service revealed that the group received all of its funding, over $780,000, from the Democratic Governors Association, a national Democratic campaign group.
“The governor has been on the receiving end of these groups and their ads and he believes that’s wrong and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Albrecht said.
When asked if the governor would support stronger legislation requiring these groups to report their funding, he said the governor “would have to see the specific legislation.”
ABOUT THIS REPORT
This story is part of a collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Center for Public Integrity released two articles Thursday, May 16 as part of its investigation into political spending by state-level nonprofits and super PACs during elections:
Lax state rules provide cover for sponsors of attack ads
Judicial candidate blames mystery nonprofit's attacks for defeat
This study was made available to IowaWatch through the Investigative News Network, a consortium of more than 60 non-profit news organizations. IowaWatch, the Center for Public Integrity and the National Institute on Money in State Politics are members of the Investigative News Network.
For more information on the Center for Public Integrity or for more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org. For more information about the National Institute on Money in State Politics, visit www.followthemoney.org.This IowaWatch story appeared in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA)