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Know how to keep track of campaign donations

Johnson City Press • Jan 4, 2018 at 12:00 AM

This will be a busy election year with local races for city, county and state offices on the ballot. One of the things voters will want to know is who is filling the campaign coffers of candidates seeking these important offices.

Voters have a right to know whom candidates are conducting business with to determine if there might be a conflict of interest. And there are ways for voters to determine if anything inappropriate is going on between contributors and candidates.

Tennessee election law requires candidates to reveal many details about their personal finances. State lawmakers are also required to list positions, such as director, trustee, board member or corporate officer, they now hold or formerly held in any business, nonprofit organization or school.

All of this information can be found online at the state Registry of Election Finance’s website (tn.gov/tref/).

Sadly, it’s become more difficult for voters to find out who is behind the negative campaign ads they are seeing, hearing or reading. That’s because the fallout from a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down in 2010 makes it possible for money to flow anonymously from one political action committee to another.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, this so-called “dark money” flows even faster in state elections than it does in federal races. Its study found that just 29 cents of every $1 of independent political spending going to state and local races in 2014 could be tracked easily to its original individual donor.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Public Integrity released a joint report in 2014 that gave a failing grade to Tennessee’s campaign finance laws. That’s because Tennessee is one of 36 states with campaign finance disclosure laws so weak that dark money from outside groups, such as nonprofit issues-oriented groups and big-spending political action committees, often go unreported in state elections.

Voters can do a little detective work themselves by going to Opensecrets.org, a website that collects campaign contribution data on who is giving to elected officials and candidates for state and federal offices. Opensecrets provides a big picture of where a candidate is getting his or her campaign donations. The information goes back 10 years and allows users to search the data base by ZIP codes.

Voters should also know where the candidates stand on the issues. Websites like votesmart.org can help. The nonpartisan Project Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test asks candidates to answer tough questions on issues such as abortion, immigration and health care.

Unfortunately, a great many of the local candidates for state and federal offices refuse to respond to the questionnaire. They are more interested in returning inquiries from the National Rifle Association.

Finally, when it comes to separating fact from fiction on the campaign trail, there is no better resource on the internet than Factcheck.org. This nonpartisan website is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

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