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OTHER VOICES: S.D. campaign limits are too easily circumvented

December 4, 2018

In the final accounting, due out in January, it’s likely a record $13 million will have been spent in the race for South Dakota governor — $15 for every man, woman and child in the state. Many donations will have come from individuals in genuine support of a candidate, but others will denote potential purchases of political influence.

We can expect the final report to offer little clarity over who financed what causes for which purposes, but it is likely no significant campaign finance laws will have been violated. That’s not surprising, because South Dakota campaign finance laws support a level of accountability almost worthy of Switzerland. In South Dakota, the information is there — somewhere.

Under state law, an individual can give $2,700 to a candidate for House — $4,000 to a candidate for governor and $10,000 to a political action committee — but a political action committee or political party can give unlimited contributions to candidates who seek any of those three offices. Got it? The confusion continues ad nauseam at the secretary of state website.

Riddled with holes, our opaque system explains how all of the water — in this case all of the money — ends up in its intended pool even when individual contributions exceed the size of the buckets. When all buckets and pools are interconnected, exceeding capacity mostly becomes a matter of bad planning.

That explains how individuals were able to contribute $23,000 at Kristi Noem’s September fundraiser with President Donald Trump in Sioux Falls despite a $4,000 cap on individual contributions. Funds were distributed among various candidate funds and political action committees.

It explains how some supporters of Billie Sutton legally exceeded contribution limits by giving to multiple political action committees, which in turn funneled all of that money to Sutton’s campaign.

In the Nov. 18 Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal, reporter Seth Tupper uncovered another means of bypassing intended campaign finance limits. State law apparently allows unlimited contributions from family members who fall within three degrees of kinship — commonly considered to include uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, great-grandparents and great-grandchildren.

So let’s say that a candidate’s grandparents had 10 children — that’s 12 unlimited contributors. And each of them got married and had 10 children who got married — that’s 200 more. We’re now looking at 222 people who could give unlimited contributions, and that’s before adding up contributions from the candidate’s children, their spouses and their children. Big families are no longer the norm, but the example shows the potential.

Loopholes and exemptions make a lot of things perfectly legal with a little creative accounting. Accountability, meanwhile, suffers from all of that mixing and remixing of funds to satisfy the letter of the law.

It would be helpful if the secretary of state’s website allowed investigators to search for contributions by individual. Instead, only scanned documents sorted by candidate are available. It would require a forensic accountant or a journalist working overtime to fully sort out that mess.

The wishes of South Dakota voters, meanwhile, appear hostile to the questionable purpose of bundled mystery funds. On Nov. 6, voters decidedly approved Initiated Measure 24, which prohibits contributions to ballot questions from out-of-state political committees. That first-in-the-nation law — likely to face a court challenge — follows previous voter efforts to increase accountability and limit out-of-state influence.

Maybe we would be better off if we scrapped both contribution limits and these Swiss-cheese laws and opted for a better, fully functional, search-optimized campaign finance website. We could give up on this sham of limiting donations and instead easily reveal the source of every dollar spent. At least then we might know who is buying how much influence.

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