One published media report this month said the campaign to legalize marijuana in California had raised $18 million. Within days, other major news outlets pegged the total at just one-third that amount, while a nonprofit campaign watchdog group said the figure was $11 million.
Why the conflicting numbers?
It’s complicated. And it points to the growing difficulty of tracking funds in California campaigns, despite – and in some respects because of – election fundraising disclosure requirements that are among the most extensive in the nation.
One factor in the case of Proposition 64, the pro-legalization initiative on the November ballot, has been a proliferation of committees filing reports each time they move funds between groups promoting or opposing the measure. That’s led to millions of dollars being counted twice and has made it difficult to track the origins of some of the money.
“One of the biggest challenges for citizens is just finding the information, let alone having some basic context for what they’re looking at,” said Laura Curlin, data director for Berkeley-based MapLight, which tracks campaign finances.
Due to California’s robust reporting laws, getting accurate campaign fundraising data typically requires retrieving and analyzing multiple documents filed with the Secretary of State in different formats and on different cycles.
Transparency also has been hampered by a state website that’s hardly been updated since before the MySpace era, despite a series of federal court rulings over the past six years that have made it easier for major donors to remain anonymous.
“Most of the public doesn’t pay all that much attention to the issue,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine who specializes in elections. “But those who do pay attention will have a harder time following the money.”
How fundraising is reported can influence the outcome of elections, according to Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who focuses on campaign finance.
“The public views the amount of money you have raised as a proxy for viability,” she said.
That perception can influence how citizens vote, she said, along with the ease or difficulty of fundraising as balloting approaches.
Reports of a surge in financial support for a measure can motivate opponents to give more, Levinson said. But if the financial advantage of one side or the other is portrayed as extremely large, she said it can scare off potential donors who don’t want to throw money at a losing cause.
Being able to accurately track who’s giving cash to a campaign can have an even bigger impact on an election, Hasen said.
He pointed to Proposition 19 in 2010. The measure would have made it harder for new public utilities to get started in California or fledgling utilities to expand. After it was disclosed that the private utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was bankrolling the effort, voters rejected the measure.
FOLLOWING THE FUNDS
Experts say there’s cause for concern about how money is quietly influencing politics in today’s climate.
“Dark money and gray money is a huge problem,” Levinson said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case contributed to the growth in campaign super PACS by allowing corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on independent ads and mailers to support or defeat candidates. Such political action committees are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 election, including campaigns in California.
The Citizens United decision also paved the way, Levinson noted, for nonprofit social welfare or trade groups to spend unlimited amounts campaigning for or against ballot measures and individual candidates with no requirement that they disclose who gave them that money.
PACs and nonprofit groups can shuffle money back and forth for a variety of tax, organizational and tactical reasons, including an attempt to “hide the source of the true contributors from the public,” Hasen said.
With Proposition 64, there are eight committees supporting the measure and two working to defeat it. That’s double the number of committees working around any of the other 16 measures on the November ballot.
When the conflicting campaign totals were reported in early September, the primary Yes on 64 committee had taken in $6.6 million. But when that was combined with all the fundraising reported by the other pro-legalization committees, the total reached nearly $18 million.
Some of the biggest PACs backing Proposition 64 also are supporting measures in other states. That makes it tough to determine how much of the money will go to the California effort. In addition, several million dollars have been transferred between independent committees before reaching the official Yes on 64 campaign. In some published reports, that appears to have led to counting the same funds multiple times.
California’s “hyper-disclosure requirements” can cause confusion, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of New York-based Drug Policy Action, which advocates for drug law reforms across the country and is financially backing passage of California’s measure. But he said there’s been no nefarious motivation for moving funds between pro-Proposition 64 committees.
His organization has two types of nonprofits, Nadelmann said, each with distinct roles, contributors and committees backing the measure. Money is sometimes moved between the groups for budget reasons or to be sure contributions are being used as donors requested, he said.
One committee opposing Proposition 64, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action – a Virginia organization that’s fighting legal marijuana across the country – waited months to report $1.4 million in contributions received from a trust controlled by a retired East Coast professor, who has been an ardent opponent of legalized weed.
SAM Action leaders say they only recently reported the donations because it wasn’t originally clear what portion would go toward defeating Proposition 64.
The Yes on 64 camp filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission about the reporting of the donations. The matter still is being reviewed, spokesman Jay Wierenga said.
TACKLING THE TECHNOLOGY
When Californians voted to become the first state to allow medical marijuana in 1996, campaign spending could be tracked only by sorting through hard copies of forms filed at the Secretary of State’s Sacramento office.
That changed in 2000 when the agency launched Cal-Access, an online database of campaign finance information. But the site hasn’t been updated to allow searching, aggregating and sorting contributions by donors or other basic computer-assisted analysis. The site also crashes frequently.
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, is seeking to change that. His Senate Bill 1349 – now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature – would require the state to overhaul Cal-Access and replace it with a system that’s easier to navigate.
“With all the money being spent in this year’s elections and on various ballot measures, disclosure is more important than ever,” Hertzberg said. He said his bill “modernizes California’s database so campaign and lobbying disclosures are quick and easy for everyone to access online immediately.”
Secretary of State spokesman Sam Mahood said if Hertzberg’s bill becomes law, a new version of Cal-Access will be operational in 2019 – just before the next presidential election cycle kicks into high gear.