Transparency in state is still MIA

Nashua Telegraph Editorial
Sunday, August 21, 2016 

Campaign finance reports are due this week from those seeking election to the offices of governor, executive councilor, state senator and state representative. It is, in theory, an opportunity for the public to see where New Hampshire candidates got their money and how they spent it.

A few candidates - Colin Van Ostern and Mark Connolly in the race for governor and Dan Weeks his a bid for a seat on the New Hampshire Executive Council - released reports well in advance of the deadline, and they should be commended for it. Having the information in the public realm longer is better, since it gives would-be voters who might be interested in that kind of thing a longer time to peruse the reports.

They're going to need it.

One of the questions a voter might want to know is how much out-of-state money a candidate for governor, Executive Council, state senator or state representative has received. Or how many corporate donations. A voter might also want to know how much money a candidate has received from donors in a particular town or from outside the district they represent.

That kind of information is easily compiled by campaigns, which keep donor databases that can be easily sorted with just a few mouse clicks.

In New Hampshire, the public can find that information, too, but they have to work at it.

Really, really hard.

"Follow the money," is a fundamental principal of understanding our political process, but New Hampshire's campaign finance system is designed to make that as difficult as possible.

The New Hampshire secretary of state's website lists 75 political committees, 58 political advocacy organizations, 99 candidate committees and 63 funds registered to candidates running for office. Some of those organizations have been collecting money for months without being required to report it before now.

They have acted in accordance with state law, but that's part of the problem.

The law also doesn't facilitate anything close to transparency.

Take Van Ostern's June 22 filing, which shows the Democratic candidate for governor raised an impressive $793,729 from 2,285 contributors to that point. The report is about 80 pages long, and it's mighty thorough. Most of those pages are lists of contributors - 61 names per page. None of those names can be searched or sorted electronically. They are scanned copies of paper documents that were themselves created on a spreadsheet.

It's as if somebody delivered a new car to the state, but they took out the engine and hooked it up to a horse.

To find out how many Nashua donors a candidate has, how many were from out-of-state or how much those subsets contributed would require someone to go through each of those pages of tiny type line-by-line, create a tally, and add up the numbers.

It is a nearly impenetrable system that prevents - and seems designed to prevent - the flow of money from being accessed quickly or in any organized fashion. It obscures, rather than illuminates, and shields candidates, political action committees, lobbyists and political operatives from real public scrutiny.

So, yes, campaign finance reports will be filed this week. But the system itself is a disgrace to the state and an insult to voters.

And the people who have had the power to change that system, but haven't, still want your vote.