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NDSU political scientist finds 'big holes' in ND campaign financing law

FARGO -- Like anyone who wants to understand North Dakota politics, Nick Bauroth tried to follow the money. The North Dakota State University political scientist wanted to tally up campaign contributions to find out which interest groups and indi...

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FARGO - Like anyone who wants to understand North Dakota politics, Nick Bauroth tried to follow the money.

The North Dakota State University political scientist wanted to tally up campaign contributions to find out which interest groups and individuals seek to influence state policies.

"When I started trying to do that, I found that with statewide elections, with legislative elections, there are some real big holes there in terms of the information that's available," he said.

Relative to other states, North Dakota has a high threshold for campaign contributions that must be reported by candidates.

In the last three election years, about a third of legislative candidates didn't need to report contributions, according to a recent study by Bauroth, who is director of Midwest Center on Public Policy. Either these candidates used only their own money or they're getting contributions that fall below the threshold. Bauroth found evidence that suggests corporations routinely make such contributions and that such contributions can add up quickly.

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But getting a more complete picture of political financing isn't just important to political scientists. The study argues that "the extent to which citizens can follow the flow of money through the electoral process helps determine their ability to make informed decisions at the ballot box."

Mystery money

In North Dakota, when an individual or group gives a candidate less than $200, the candidate doesn't need to report who gave the money. A candidate for statewide office, such as the governor's office, must at least report the total of those sub-$200 donations, but not a candidate for the state Legislature.

When candidates don't report contributions, it's possible they just spent their own money, but, as the study found, political action committees routinely make donations of less than $200. Bauroth said corporate PACs sometimes report donations to investors, providing a glimpse into how they help favored candidates. Johnson & Johnson's PAC, for example, gave 20 North Dakota legislative candidates each $150 in 2010. Tesoro's PAC gave 32 legislative candidates each $100 in 2014.

It's also possible that sub-$200 donations don't add up to much - candidates who don't have reportable contributions are often running unopposed - but they sometimes add up to a lot. Statewide candidates who must report the total of such donations have disclosed in recent years that they make up 10 to 29 percent of all donations the candidates received.

That kind of money doesn't go far in states where campaign costs are high, such as in New York, Bauroth said. "But in North Dakota, it's something, particularly if you're trying to gauge if certain industries, oil industry, agriculture or individual citizens have some sort of outsized influence or at least attempt to."

It's possible there really isn't a problem.

"This report in some ways is an exercise in frustration in that, well, I don't even know what I don't know," Bauroth said. "I don't know if this is a big deal or if this is just a minor thing."

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What other states do

The remedy is to lower the threshold below $200, the study suggests.

North Dakota's threshold is higher than that of all but 46 states, according to data from the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C. Mississippi's reporting threshold is $200, Nebraska's is $250 and New Jersey's is $250. Among North Dakota's neighbors, Minnesota's and South Dakota's are $100 and Montana's is $35.

Eight states have zero thresholds, meaning all contributions must be reported, including rural states such as New Mexico and West Virginia.

Bauroth said he's sent his study to state lawmakers, but hasn't heard from any. He hopes some of them will consider changing the threshold.

On the Web: To read Bauroth's study, go to https://www.ndsu.edu/centers/publicpolicy/studies_and_reports .

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