The Colorado Secretary of State’s office recently began to examine some of the data their online campaign finance reporting system, called TRACER, was tracking about who was paying the most in fines for violations of campaign finance law. The data proved interesting in light of Colorado’s recent history with campaign finance regulation and how it affects small groups of people coming together over politics.
The data reveals, as reported by the Pueblo Chieftain, the groups most encumbered by the complexity of campaign finance regulation tend to be smaller and less well-financed grassroots organizations.
“Our office did a study and looked at who pays campaign finance fines, who doesn’t, who violates the law a lot, things like that,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler. “And the bottom line is this: Volunteers and grass-roots groups are far more likely to run afoul of the law because the law is so complex. Large, big-money groups are able to hire attorneys and accountants and pay very, very few fines.”
What makes this information particularly relevant is that almost a year ago a decision was handed down by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Colorado to reverse an earlier decision requiring 6 Coloradans opposing a local ballot measure to register as a political group. Back in 2006 this small group of citizens were opposing the annexation of their subdivision into the nearby town of Parker, and engaged in classic grassroots activism to oppose it by printing a few yard signs and distributing brochures, among other activities. A lawyer favoring annexation, in a move tantamount to using a sledgehammer to swat a fly, filed a campaign finance violation under Colorado’s existing regulations because the group hadn’t registered with the state before speaking out on a ballot issue.
The complaint lead to significant legal expenses for these grassroots activists, and they were found to have broken the law. Fortunately, the decision was overturned in 2010 but the resultant lesson was clear: under complex regulation, six private citizens were at the mercy of a well informed machine that leveraged the law’s intricacies to intimidate and bully. The new data from the Secretary of State’s office appears to offer some proof that the Parker North affair, while certainly the most high-profile, was not just an isolated situation.