WV Clean Elections Legislative Update by Julie Archer

March 4, 2005

Background on Legislation to Regulate 527s/Soft Money in West Virginia Elections

SB 245 and HB 2485

Draft legislation being considered by the Select Committee on Campaign Finance Reform attempts to reform the election process in three ways:

1. Requiring the disclosure of electioneering communications;

2. Prohibiting corporate disbursements for electioneering communications; and

3. Limiting contributions to political committees and political organizations.

This landmark legislation prohibits corporations from financing "issue ads" that target candidates shortly before a state election; and requires significant levels of disclosure from legitimate sponsors of an electioneering communication that names a candidate but previously escaped regulation by stopping short of expressly advocating the candidate's election or defeat.

The bill would regulate electioneering that masquerades as "issue advocacy" and prohibit the intervention of corporations in elections. The federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or McCain-Feingold law tackles these same concerns in regard to federal elections, with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court. Only a few states have passed laws that adapt the language of McCain-Feingold to state elections. It is an important effort to undertake, because the McCain-Feingold ban on unlimited "soft money" donations going to the federal parties has spurred the advent of new vehicles for special-interest money, such as 527 committees, named for the section of the IRS code that grants them tax-exempt status.

The legislation would boost the state's longstanding tradition of keeping corporate money out of elections, but it won't stop all the ways wealthy special interests influence who wins or even who can run. Under the draft bill, "issue ads" that blast a candidate's character, without calling specifically for the candidate's defeat could continue; the contributions paying for them would just need to be disclosed to the Secretary of State.

Description of key aspects of the legislation:

Defines "electioneering communication" as any paid advertising broadcast on television or radio, published in any periodical or newspaper, or sent by mass mail that has all of the following characteristics:

1. Refers to a clearly identified candidate for statewide or legislative office. This includes ads in which a photograph or drawing of the candidate appears, or the identity of the candidate is apparent by unambiguous reference.

2. Occurs within 60 days before a general or special election, or 30 days before a primary election or nominating convention.

3. Targets a significant part of the candidate's electorate (numbers are given).

The following are not considered "electioneering communications:"

1. Communications that urge the audience to contact members of the Legislature about a specific piece of legislation while the Legislature is in session.

2. Bona fide news stories, commentary, and editorials naming a candidate.

3. Candidate debates or forums, or communications that promote a debate or forum.

4. Communications sent by groups and companies just to their members or stockholders.

Requires any individual, committee, association or other organization or group of individuals that makes a disbursement in excess of $10,000 for the direct costs of producing and airing an "electioneering communication" to disclose:

1. The identity and address of any sponsoring or controlling entity;

2. The names and address of any donor giving an aggregate of over $1,000;

3. The amount and recipient for each disbursement of over $1,000; and

4. The name of all candidates the communication pertains to, if known.

Prohibits corporations, from making any disbursement for the costs of producing or airing any "electioneering communications."

Prohibits any individual, committee, association, or any other organization or group of individuals, including but not limited to 527 committees, from making a disbursement for the costs of producing or airing any "electioneering communications" with funds received, directly or indirectly, from any corporation.

Prohibits 527 groups, political organizations and political action committees that engage in either activities expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for a statewide or legislative office, or in "electioneering communications" from accepting contributions totaling more than $2,000 from an individual, political committee or political party during any two-year election cycle.

The requirement regarding the disclosure of electioneering communications and the prohibition on corporate disbursements are modeled on recent North Carolina legislation. The limitation on contributions to political committees and organizations is modeled on Vermont legislation.


Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246