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New Mexico Pursues Much-Needed Reforms to Combat Unaccountable Political Ads

This summer New Mexico is acting to close massive loopholes that have permitted unaccountable political spending to flood its elections for years.

July 19, 2017

This summer New Mexico is acting to close massive loopholes that have permitted unaccountable political spending to flood its elections for years. Secretary of State Maggie Oliver recently proposed new rules to require groups such as super PACs and social welfare nonprofits to publicly disclose donors who give significant amounts toward their political advertising. After Citizens United and other cases in 2010, such groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts on political ads if they’re not technically coordinating with a candidate. The proposed rules also strengthen the definition of coordination, making it harder for candidates to benefit from the cooperation of unlimited spenders while evading anticorruption contribution limits. We submitted comments to New Mexico last week to support these reforms. 

Without these reforms, New Mexico will continue to lag behind most of the nation in political spending transparency. It is one of four states that do not require any disclosure by independent spenders — not even that they spent on ads in the first place — earning it an “F” from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Publicly available records track spending by only registered political committees and candidates. Yet one legislative contest alone indicated the possible scale of unaccountable advertising in the state. In 2012, the state’s first senate elections since Citizens United, nondisclosing groups spent nearly $1 million on advertising for just one seat — a fact that reporters at ProPublica had to piece together from TV station records. Without adequate disclosure, New Mexico voters ordinarily have had no way of knowing who was attempting to sway their elections.

Our research shows that states can make a real dent in unaccountable political spending with smart rules and tough enforcement. In a six-state analysis last year, we found that secretive political advertising had shot up by 38 times on average between 2006 and 2014. But in California, which has robust transparency rules and enforcement, anonymous spending remained strikingly low even though political spending was much higher than elsewhere. Other states, including Montana, Colorado, and Washington have taken steps to beef up transparency. State leadership is especially important in a time when the federal government is doing virtually nothing to address a nationwide explosion in unaccountable political money.

While New Mexico is at it, we suggested several improvements to the proposed rules that would better deter corruption of candidates and provide meaningful information to voters. For instance, we recommend specifying coordination conduct that reflects how candidates and outside spenders really cooperate and requiring disclosure of original sources of funding when intermediary entities funnel money to spenders.

Peter Dunphy contributed research.

(Image: AK Rockefeller)