$23 million worth of TV campaign ads unreported in Michigan


That’s what a new report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) says about campaign transparency in Michigan. “$70 Million Hidden in Plain View – Michigan’s Spectacular Failure of Campaign Finance Disclosure, 2000-2010” claims that nearly $23 million in unreported television advertising in 2010 statewide election campaigns pushed the state total of undisclosed candidate-focused “issue” advertising to almost $70 million since 2000.

MCFN is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and public education on money in Michigan politics.

Three candidates won television-driven statewide elections in 2010 without buying broadcast advertising of their own, the report adds. They include Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Virg Bernero: “All three were totally dependent on their political party for their advertising campaign, and the parties reported nothing about the Johnson campaign or the Bernero primary campaign. The Michigan Republican Party reported $650,000 of its $3.4 million television campaign supporting now-Justice Kelly and her fellow Republican nominee, now-Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr.”

The Michigan Department of State doesn’t require advertisers to report their spending or the sources that enable it unless the ads explicitly suggest voting. Despite the fact that neither the words nor the concept of “express advocacy” are found in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, the interpretation that says only express advocacy is a campaign expenditure allows campaign advertisers to report nothing and the Department of State to turn its blind eye, MCFN says.

“The United States Supreme Court recognized that there is a functional equivalent of express advocacy in its 2007 decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The Department of State’s interpretation remains firmly rooted in the jurisprudence of the last century, to the extreme delight of the interest groups and individuals who want to buy election outcomes without leaving fingerprints.”

Among the major 2010 statewide campaigns, only the Republican gubernatorial primary had a disclosure rate above 55%–92% of the Republican primary spending was reported.

The gubernatorial general election, like the Supreme Court campaign, was a case where there was more spending off the books than was disclosed. The Michigan Democratic Party spent $4.3 million on ads supporting Bernero while the Republican Governors Association spent $3.6 million supporting now-Gov. Rick Snyder. Unreported spending in the gubernatorial general election overshadowed that which was reported, $7.9 million to $6.9 million. The RGA’s ads supporting Snyder included B-roll of Snyder recycled from the candidate’s own primary ads. California-based Target Enterprises was Snyder’s ad agency for the primary and the RGA’s agency for the general.

“The gubernatorial general election was not a different kind of politics,” Robinson noted. “It was the same old same old: Secret spenders, no accountability.”

MCFN’s report goes on to say that The Republican Governors Association pressured several television stations around the state to withhold records of its ads from their public files. MCFN estimated those stations’ sales based on a decade’s worth of market-share data.

The evidence seems to be moving the needle in the Great Lakes State: Denise Langford Morris, a 2010 Supreme Court candidate, amended her campaign finance reports on June 6, when $70 Million Hidden in Plain View was at the printer. Morris now reports having raised $250,000 more than she had previously reported. While this is a substantial change in Morris’s campaign profile, it makes a limited difference in the profile of the overall 2010 Supreme Court campaign. The revised Dashboard of Campaign Finance Accountability will show 44.7% disclosure for the overall campaign, rather than 43.5%.

RBR-TVBR observation: Voters want accountability on what led to a candidate’s election. If it is due to an overabundance of ad placements from sources such as behind-the-scenes interest groups, then it should be public knowledge. Otherwise, candidates and elections can just be bought and paid for by just about anyone or anything that has a lot of money to spend. That is dangerous for any democratic process. Perhaps the Michigan Department of State should revise the rules on this.