BISMARCK — While candidate campaigns, political action committees and ballot measure sponsors have to disclose their donors over $200, independent expenditures do not have as much transparency with their donors.
Ellen Chaffee, a board member of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, is part of the movement to pass HB 1451, which would require independent expenditures to disclose donations of over $200.
“(Independent expenditures) may relate to a candidate or campaign, but it has not got any conjunction with the actual candidate,” she said.
Chaffee said any group working to oppose a citizen-initiated measure is considered an independent expenditure group.
HB 1451 would bring independent expenditures into the same disclosure requirements that are already required for candidates, political action committees and ballot measure sponsors.
“Part of the philosophy of this bill is that if you are not willing to be accountable for what you are doing then we don’t want you influencing our voters,” she said.
North Dakotans should know who is trying to influence their votes, said Chaffee, especially if it is someone from out of state.
“If you don’t know who they are, you can’t think of what their motives or hidden agendas might be,” she said. “A lot of people in North Dakota are deeply offended when someone from out of state tries to influence our votes.”
With current law, the only disclosure is the name of certain groups who have paid for advertisements, Chaffee said.
“Many of these organizations come up with these lovely names and they lull us into thinking that their values are the same as ours,” she said.
The amount of independent expenditures made in an election cycle depends on what ballot initiatives are being voted on, Chaffee said.
Since 2012, the number of independent expenditures has varied depending on ballot measures, with 2014 seeing 117 different filers and 2020 seeing only 11, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State campaign finance records.
In 2014 the 117 different filers spent over $11.6 million in North Dakota, the most spent in the last 10 years, according to the records. In 2020 spending only reached about $350,000, but Chaffee believes that is because there were not as many controversial ballot measures.
“At the state level it's a rollercoaster, because it all depends on if there are ballot initiatives that year, and if they are controversial,” she said.
While the bill’s sponsors are Democrats, Chaffee said she believes it is a bipartisan issue, as independent expenditure groups support liberal causes as well. “All sides can use this, which makes revealing the sources all the more significant,” she said.
Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, agreed. “The public should know who is spending money to influence the outcomes of our elections,” she said, and making independent expenditures transparent fits with policies already in place in North Dakota.
“This would create consistency with how political candidates, political parties and political action committees all have to report who makes donations to their campaigns,” she said.
Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, chairs the Political Subdivisions Committee, which will consider the bill. He hadn’t examined it yet, but he said last week that more transparency in political spending would be beneficial to all in North Dakota. “It doesn’t matter if it is a Republican or Democrat issue, it's just transparency for the public,” he said.
Once the bill has been vetted during its hearing, Dockter said he will know whether the bill could be beneficial for North Dakota or if it needs amendments.
“Hopefully in this committee hearing we can find out if there is a constant problem ... and find out where these resources are coming from,” he said.
Dockter said as North Dakota is still a rural state it can be influenced by other states, but North Dakotans are not excited by that prospect. “Typically, in North Dakota we frown upon outside money coming into the state,” he said.
Dylan Sherman is a reporting intern with the North Dakota Newspaper Association.