Every election, candidates and their campaigns, political organizations and others spend millions of dollars on advertisements designed to influence New Mexicans’ votes. Voters have a right to know who is behind these advertisements and how much is being spent. New Mexico law, including new provisions of the Campaign Reporting Act enacted in 2019, requires that individuals and organizations making expenditures disclose basic information about the expenditures – i.e., who spent the money, how much was spent, and who ultimately provided the funding. Given that regulators can only do so much, members of the public can be an important watchdog to ensure that our campaign finance disclosure laws are followed, if they know what to look for.
Candidates and their committees abide by the rules most of the time. However, so-called “dark money” – expenditures that either do not reveal the sources of their funds or are entirely unreported – has found its way into our elections for years. Dark money usually influences our elections through so-called “independent expenditures” – expenditures which support or oppose an identified political candidate or ballot question by actors who are not officially affiliated with a campaign. While the Campaign Reporting Act (CRA) requires organizations making independent expenditures to register with the Secretary of State and disclose information about their contributors and expenditures, dark money groups often try to avoid disclosure obligations.
Since the CRA only requires that 10% of campaign finance reports be audited and many dark money groups never even report their expenditures to begin with, these unaccountable groups can slip through the cracks without being noticed. Therefore, public attention can be a vital asset to the quality of our elections. Every voter can be an auditor.
To help combat dark money in our elections, the public can take several steps. The first is to recognize an independent expenditure. Independent expenditures are 1) political advertisements, 2) made by an entity other than a candidate or campaign, 3) that advocate for a specific candidate or ballot question or that refer to specific candidates or ballot questions, and 4) are predominantly persuasive rather than purely informational. Dark money groups behind independent expenditures also tend to operate under an anodyne name, along the lines of “New Mexicans for New Mexico.” If an advertisement has these characteristics and comes across as political spin, the law likely requires the group behind the advertisement to report details regarding how much the advertisement cost and who donated money to pay for it.
The next step is to check the Secretary of State’s new online Campaign Finance Information System (CFIS) to see if the group that paid for the advertisement has made the required disclosures. Members of the public should look for 1) whether the group that paid for the advertisement registered with the Secretary of State, 2) whether it disclosed the amount it has spent, and 3) who contributed money to fund its advertisements. If you believe that an organization is not making required disclosures, you can notify the Secretary of State or the State Ethics Commission, either by providing a tip or filing a complaint.
To view the Secretary of State’s new CFIS system, visit https://login.cfis.sos.state.nm.us/#/index. To contact the Secretary of State, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the State Ethics Commission, email email@example.com or visit the Commission’s website, www.sec.state.nm.us to learn more.