If you were among the hundreds of thousands of Orange County residents who already cast a mail-in ballot weeks ahead of election day, chances are you never got a full look at just who exactly wants the person you voted for in power.
That’s partly because political candidates under California elections law didn’t have to file their final, most comprehensive and summarized reports on who’s giving them their campaign money — known as form 460s — until today.
The same goes for political committees independently set up to support candidates or certain causes.
“It’s like closing the barn door after the horses are gone,” said Tracy Westen, a political ethics expert who once headed the Center for Governmental Studies. “I think those deadlines have been adopted many, many years ago and the world has changed.”
Today’s deadline, under normal circumstances, is meant to give voters a definitive picture of which interests are backing which politicians in a timely manner, usually a week-and-a-half before election day, so they can make an informed decision when casting their ballots.
But these aren’t normal circumstances.
The advent of a system that now allows people to vote early by mail — especially with a Coronavirus pandemic where people are wary of interacting with others out in public — means many aren’t waiting until November anymore. They’re actually voting weeks early, all before seeing their local office-seekers’ most complete campaign finance information.
The reports and their deadlines are enforced by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which is charged with enforcing campaign transparency and ethics laws under the Political Reform Act of 1974.
Bob Stern, the FPPC’s first general counsel who co-authored certain draft provisions of the Political Reform Act, said most members of the public already aren’t paying enough attention to the campaign finance reports behind their local candidates.
“I’m not sure a major portion of the public is taking a look at these things anyway,” Stern said.
Westen said that problem is either due to lack of enough public awareness or difficulty understanding the documents, and said it’s exacerbated by the pandemic: “Especially with Coronavirus, as more and more people want to vote by mail and vote early — those deadline dates are outdated.”
“This data should be available to people before they start voting, not after — and not just in time to vote, but in time to be analyzed,” Westen said, pointing out it’s usually more civically-engaged members of the public, candidates themselves and their opponents, and members of the media who study the campaign finance disclosures and disseminate that information to the general public.
An FPPC spokesman said in an email that any changes to the commission’s reporting deadlines would have to be made by the state Legislature.
He added that 24 hour reports (known as form 497s) are still required for campaign contributions or independent expenditures totaling $1,000 or more up until the election.
But while 497s can be disclosed daily, Westen agreed it’s hard for members of the public to know when to even look for those filings whenever a transaction between a donor and candidate is made — or when to request those reports from their local City Clerk if the city doesn’t list all of them on a public access portal.
By comparison, form 460s wrap all the 497 reports into one filing for a given period — as well as donations made under the $1,000 amount — and are beholden to public deadlines, like the one on Oct. 22, giving the public an idea of when to seek them out.
Westen added the 460s give voters a clearer idea of what percentage of a candidate’s money comes from a certain industry or group of aligning interests, but only with enough time to analyze the data: “what percentage of this candidate’s money is coming from oil, plastics, agriculture? A cluster of wealthy donors?”
He also said the way the information and reports are formatted needs to be readjusted so it’s more understandable to members of the public who aren’t well-versed in how to read, say, a form 410 versus a form 497.
More than 487,000 Orange County voters have already cast their ballot ahead of Nov. 3, according to county data — an unprecedented trend that Orange County’s top elections official, Neal Kelley, has voiced public astonishment over.
And while some disclosures tied to this election cycle have already been reported by the most recent Sept. 24 deadline — giving a partial look at office-seekers’ funding sources before many people voted — there’s a chance candidates received money from elsewhere in the time since.
“As a candidate now myself, I see there’s a lot of incentive for others to not necessarily be truthful about who’s giving campaign contributions and who’s not,” said Ann Ravel, who once served on the Federal Elections Commission — which enforces national campaign finance laws — and on the FPPC.
Ravel, now a state Senate candidate in Northern California, in an Oct. 15 interview said “these rules are in place so the public can find out on time and make thoughtful decisions.”
And it’s not just candidates who have to file these reports. Independent committees set up to support a candidate or a specific interest or policy are beholden to the Oct. 22 deadline as well.
Stern said he teaches a class of more than 100 adults at the University of California, Los Angeles, and surveyed them this year on when they would vote.
He said a large number responded: “As soon as I get my ballot.”
In Orange County, elections officials sent out ballots to all registered voters the week of Oct. 5.
Think back to the moon landing of 1969, Westen said. From that historic moment in world history came a shockwave of impacts to societal and economic life. The Apollo mission accelerated satellite communication abilities, GPS navigation, and advancements toward Internet technology. It even popularized the Orange-flavored drink mix Tang, which was associated with space program marketing.
Likewise, he said, COVID-19 is having that affect across a variety of governmental systems and functions.
“When you think of Coronavirus and its impacts on medicine, home delivery of food, the need for spreading internet accessibility out so students can learn remotely — this is one of the other aspects of this whole pandemic, now stimulating our voting system,” he said.
“Coronavirus is sending waves into many other fields, including campaign finance. It will also force some attention to improving voter information in general about candidates,” he added. “Our system now has to be readjusted to take care of that.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.