Idaho’s Campaign Finance Laws are a Joke

“I want to know who is donating to who and how much it’s for so we can put sunlight on the campaigns and people who support them!”

You may have heard similar sentiments from several people. Heck, you may have thought that yourself at one point, or maybe you still do.

Everyone seems to have some desire to keep the “system” for donating to candidates and Political Action Committees honest. I don’t think it’s ill intent that people wish the political system in this state and the country as a whole is fair and accurate.

The truth is, Idaho’s “Sunshine Laws” are a joke and by and large a waste of time.

To be fair to Idaho, campaign finance laws across the country are a joke. There is very little value to the way they are set up because there are a million ways around them.

In theory, the goal of these laws is to let Idahoans see which individuals/companies/organizations are donating to which candidates. The state has placed a limit on how much a candidate can receive from someone during the Primary Election and the General Election. Sounds great right? Sure, until you realize how convoluted it all is and how easily people are getting around the laws.

(And no, the answer isn’t more government tracking.)

Additionally, the laws are not enforced the same for everyone, especially if you are a conservative who believes in the constitution and limited government.

 Idaho would be better off removing any limit to a person’s personal donation to a candidate, which would give Idahoans a more accurate picture of who is donating to who. 

The way the law is now, a person may not donate more than $1,000 to a candidate for a non-statewide race for the primary election. They may also donate an additional $1,000 for the general election. If any money is donated more than that, the individual is in violation of Idaho’s campaign finance laws.

Except, there’s a very easy and often used way around that: Political Action Committees.

There is NO LIMIT to how much an individual can give to a PAC. Want to give $500 to your favorite PAC? Go ahead! Want to give $500,000 to your favorite PAC? That’s fine too!

For instance, if you wanted to give $2,500 (statewide limit per election) to Idaho’s lockdown governor, Brad Little, you can do that. However, you can’t give any more money to Little for that particular election unless you donated to one of the many PACs that also support him directly, such as the “Friends of Brad Little PAC.” The PAC’s treasurer is listed as Vicky Risch, the wife of U.S. Senator Jim Risch.

A quick look at the Friends of Brad Little PAC shows recent donations of $20,000, $15,000, $10,000, $10,000, $5,000, and $5,000. That’s just six donations equaling $65,000, all of which are going to go to helping Brad Little in the same way it would have helped him had the donations just gone to his campaign directly.

It’s a perfectly legal way of funneling money into an entity that will help a candidate you like or attack a candidate you don’t like. All sides of the political spectrum do it.

Not all PACs are listed in such a direct fashion as “Friends of…” like the PAC supporting Little. Most of the time the PACs don’t list any particular candidate. Some PACs may support or oppose multiple candidates.

The bottom line is, if Joe Schmoe wants to help Lock Down Little win re-election, he’ll just donate $2,000 directly, and then he’ll give $10,000 to a PAC that will also be directly helping Little. It’s perfectly legal and somehow we are supposed to believe that this is a fairer system then just removing the individual limit altogether?

Perhaps my biggest beef with the campaign laws is how they don’t appear to be applied equally.

For instance, several years ago the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance got into a legal dispute with the Attorney General’s office (then run by Lawrence Wasden) over reporting requirements for non-profits. The ISAA contended, and still does, that the requirements didn’t apply to non-profits because we don’t support or oppose candidates during the election process, but use our 1st Amendment rights to educate citizens on where candidates stand on 2nd Amendment issues.

The AG’s office didn’t have any conversations with us and instead just threatened to sue the ISAA.

The claim by the AG and SOS office at the time is that any person or organization that even mentioned a candidate, had to file campaign finance paperwork. Well, the media is exempt of course, because why not.

During the next election cycle however, I noticed that an online fake “conservative” group called “Idaho Conservatives” (no longer in existence) was attacking a lot of candidates well within the 30-day window (any mention of a candidate within 30 days of a primary must file a campaign finance report if money is spent) and paying Facebook to “boost” the articles.

At the end of the election cycle however, no paperwork was filed. So, I filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office because I wanted an explanation on why this group did not file paperwork as the law seems to clearly state they must when they spent money within the 30-day window.

The SOS office had the Attorney General’s office review the complaint and eventually told me that no laws were violated. 

No explanation was ever given to me on why the group never had to file paperwork. Even the individual at the SOS office I was working with on the issue seemed perplexed on why a violation had not occurred. 

In fact, I asked the SOS employee if it was okay for me on the next election cycle to write attack articles on, boost them for $10,000 each, and then not file a report. The SOS employee essentially said, “apparently that’s okay.”

Perhaps my complaint would be cheated differently with the new Attorney General’s office, or maybe not. I’m not really sure. But you can see why these laws, especially if applied unequally, are a major issue.

And this isn’t to say that the group did this deliberately, or had any idea that they were supposed to file the paperwork. Again, the laws are murky and haven’t really had a major overhaul in quite some time. 

I was told that the laws were written when the fax machine was still prevalent and that they aren’t really written for modern times.

To re-iterate, the campaign finance laws are a joke and no amount of government meddling is going to help because people are going to find a way to legally donate to candidates they want. 


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