Most Americans believe—perhaps reluctantly—that serving on a local city council is a valuable contribution to civic engagement. We know our neighbors, church members, and friends, so it is helpful when they help run our local government. But what happens when ordinary citizens wishing to participate can’t figure out campaign finance red tape? The City of San Jose, California offers instructional insight.
The San Jose Ethics Commission decided to investigate almost all of the forty members of the City Council due to campaign finance violations. With the scope of such an investigation, one might think massive bribery, organized crime, or some scene out of Boardwalk Empire is afoot. None of that is at play. Instead, investigators want answers, and hefty fines, because council members reported late contributions incorrectly. Because of paperwork errors, one city councilmember has already received a $10,000 fine. To add a touch of irony, in 2011 the City Council unanimously approved the “tougher” election laws behind this investigation to help improve transparency.
The story gets worse. The law is so confusing, or misunderstood, that the City Clerk gave out the wrong instructions about how to comply with it. Indeed, the Clerk has urged the roving Ethics Commission to back off. Like the barber who always sees a haircut, the Commission sees corruption. Those supporting campaign finance reform likely agree. Professor Jessica Levinson at Loyola Law School explained that the far-reaching investigation “seems like a rational response to the allegations.”
San Jose’s predicament illustrates how well intentioned campaign finance reform can deter and destroy civic participation by our citizenry. If we generally believe that getting involved in politics, serving at the local level, and speaking our respective minds is a net plus, we should be weary when they can be fined or jailed for making simple paperwork errors. Of course, a number of well-defined anti-corruption laws already protect against shady dealings and bribery.
The nasty trick of campaign finance is that it takes the core of what most Americans support—protection against corrupt government deals—and attempts to create a utopian vision of “clean politics”. In that vision there is no place for non-compliance, no place for paperwork mistakes, and no place for ascending voices in our communities without accountants and lawyers to help them along. There is a bevy of compliance work, accounting formulas, schedules, forms, legal compliance tricks, vendor requirements, and regulatory complications. That means when a local homemaker wants to run for the school board but can’t afford a compliance team, she’s out of luck. That, too, means that when the local environmentalist group seeks to speak out about corporate pollution at a local mine, they’re too often silenced because they can’t hire a league of attorneys and accountants to handle the campaign finance red tape. This is all done in the name of “transparency” and “disclosure.”
The lesson from San Jose depicts a simple truth: campaign finance makes civic engagement puzzling, difficult, and deters Americans from helping out and speaking about issues important to their local communities. To restore civic engagement, we must tear down these barriers to political participation, defend the right of the grassroots to participate, and ultimately bring politics back to the people.