By Walker Davis and Maya Gold
August 24, 2016

Ann M. Ravel, a current Federal Election Commission (FEC) commissioner, doesn’t think the FEC is dysfunctional. She thinks it’s “worse than dysfunctional.” Her statement last year, when she chaired the commission, was another nail in the coffin for the agency’s reputation. To many observers, the FEC is an example of how not to enforce campaign finance laws, but less is known about what features campaign finance enforcement agencies should have.

The states might be the place to find some answers. Acknowledged by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as the “laboratories of democracy,” each state has a unique set of campaign finance laws, and each state enforces them differently.

A new academic paper of which we are both co-authors, along with Lewis & Clark College professors Ellen C. Seljan and Todd Lochner, makes use of these differences in order to answer an important question: what policies can campaign finance enforcement agencies implement to achieve greater compliance with the law? As far as we know, this is the first research to attempt to answer this question.

Before getting into those practices, however, we wanted to take a look at the scope of the problem. In other words, how many campaigns break campaign finance laws? We used a list experiment, a survey technique designed to ascertain accurate answers to embarrassing or incriminating questions, to determine whether state legislators were aware of campaign finance violations.

The experiment’s results were surprising. Nearly a third of legislators are personally aware of an intentional campaign finance violation—either in their campaign or others—that went undetected in their state. This percentage is consistent across political party, number of campaigns, and level of spending, which implies that violating the law and successfully evading detection occurs regardless of political affiliation and experience.

We also measured legislators’ perceptions of how effectively their state agencies detect violations of campaign finance laws. By comparing their responses to their state agency’s auditing and disclosure policies, we were able to identify two types of policies that increase legislators’ perceptions of agency effectiveness. The first is random auditing of campaigns. Legislators were nearly four times more likely to rate their agency as “very effective” if they experience a random audit—22% versus 6%.

Disclosure policies help, too. They increase perceptions among legislators that third parties that monitor for campaign finance violations — such as the media and watchdog groups like CREW — are more effective. We determined that state legislators think third-party monitors are just as effective as state agencies in identifying violations, so agency policies that result in public disclosure of key information are important to effective enforcement.

In particular, frequent filing requirements—defined as four or more disclosures prior to an election—and separate required filings for large contributions are a strong combination. It should be noted, however, that frequent filings in and of themselves did not increase perceptions of third-party efficacy. This is most likely because an overabundance of trivial information is not conducive to efficient monitoring. Instead, the most effective disclosure policies are those that require substantive information to be disclosed with relative frequency.

This research shows that reforms are sorely needed: far too many violations go undetected. Thankfully, this research also shows that more effective policies exist. Campaign finance enforcement agencies should strengthen their random auditing and transparency policies in order to achieve a higher level of compliance.

The paper, titled I Know What You Did Last Cycle: Improving the Detection of State Campaign Finance Violations, was researched and written by Ellen C. Seljan, Todd Lochner, Maya Gold, and Walker Davis. It is available online at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/elj.2015.0348.