Delaware: A Small State Taking Big Steps to Improve its Democracy

April 24, 2012

Last month, distracted by Super Tuesday, March Madness, and "The Hunger Games," you may have missed the news from Delaware. Here’s the exciting update: Governor Jack Markell introduced two proposals to strengthen the state’s democratic processes — one to make lobbying more transparent; the other to shine light on money in politics. Together, these reforms would represent a big step for this small state.                

The first proposal is simple. Senate Bill 185 would require lobbyists to file reports online about their lobbying activity within five days of contacting a state official to discuss a bill, resolution, or regulation. Basically, the law would eliminate back-door meetings; when a lobbyist decides to use her clout to try to influence the legislative process, she must come through the front door and leave her calling card.

The second takes a minute more to explain. The Delaware Elections Disclosure Act is focused upon outside spending — i.e., spending by third parties rather than by candidates or political parties — in state elections. The bill would expand the reach of campaign finance disclosure requirements to capture “electioneering communications” — campaign advertisements that identify a candidate and are released right before an election. This is necessary to close a gaping loophole in current law. Now, outside spenders can skirt all reporting requirements simply by avoiding certain magic words like “vote for” or “vote against.”    

The new campaign finance bill would also make information about outside spending more accessible to the public. Any person or group spending over $500 on campaign advertisements would have to file a disclosure report within 24 hours that would be available on the Election Commission’s website. In addition, all ads would have to include a disclaimer identifying who paid for the ad and showing a website with more information.  

Both bills promote transparency in ways that would improve Delaware’s democratic process. A front-door lobbying policy puts Delawareans on notice about the special interests seeking to affect lawmaking.    Similarly, and as the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized time and again, voters have a right to know who is spending big bucks to influence election results. This information helps voters judge the persuasiveness of the campaign ads they see and hear, and ultimately facilitates an informed choice at the ballot box.

Today, the General Assembly is back from spring break, and ready to get back to work. Before moving on to other matters, the Senate should advance lobbying reform, and the House should push forward the campaign finance bill. Shrug off other distractions and keep your eyes glued on Delaware.