Legislature can clean up its own elections
Before we get into the heat of the 2014 North Dakota legislative races, it would be wise to consider steps to protect the electoral process in the calm before the storm when objectivity is possible.
In the Legislative Article of the state constitution, we find that Sections 9 and 10 provide language that could be construed as “corrupt practices” provisions. These two sections provide for the expulsion of legislators involved in bribery.
But it is Section 12 that broadens the scope of disciplinary action and offers an opportunity to take charge of “corrupt practices” in legislative races.
This section declares that the each house shall be the judge of the qualifications of its members and states that the chamber may expel a member with a two-thirds vote of the body.
This language means that the chambers may establish standards of corrupt practices that could be used to determine the seating or unseating of members. And this could be done without a constitutional amendment since the authorization is already in Section 12.
By establishing permanent rules, each chamber could get control of unlimited campaign spending, campaign distortions, out-of-state contributions, political action committees and other evils that plague politics today.
Let’s be definitive about the possibilities.
Spending limits. Money can buy elections. The danger down the road is even greater than in the past because large economic and ideological entities are appearing in North Dakota politics. Excessive spending could be defined in legislative corrupt practices provisions. Spend more than the limit and you don’t get seated.
Outside money. National PACs and other organizations have been able to pump secret money into legislative races. Under a chamber’s own rules, it could lump out-of-state contributions within the limits on campaign contributions. You take too much outside money and you don’t get seated.
While the Legislature may not have authority over out-of-state interests, if a legislator could be refused a seat for banned contributions, these interests would realize that their contributions would only mean that their candidate would not be seated if elected.
Unregistered political action groups. Require all political action groups involved in a candidate’s campaign to register before beginning activities.
Daily reporting. The filing deadline for reporting campaign contributions at present are worthless for establishing accountability in a campaign. By the time the reports are filed, it is too late for contenders to call attention to questionable fund sources.
As stated in previous columns, the Internet makes it possible to require reporting of contributions in cash, in-kind, loans or unpaid debts on a daily basis.
Unfair campaign practices. The language and tactics in campaigns have become more deceitful with each election. Misrepresentation of voting records, charges based on hearsay and eleventh hour leaflets have become too common. Though difficult to define, they are worth more attention.
Integrity issues. For one thing, citizens expect legislators to abide by the laws they pass. They also expect legislators to avoid conflicts of interests and profiting from their offices.
To evaluate alleged violations, independent panels may be necessary to make impartial recommendations to the Legislature. Left on its own, the legislative “old boy” network may be unwilling to enforce corrupt practices rules.
With Section 12 in place, legislative races can be as clean or dirty as the Legislature itself chooses. Democracy needs a shot of integrity to regain some of the ground lost over the past few months.