Wisconsin Gets a Lackluster Grade for Campaign Finance Disclosure

State receives a ‘C-’ in a new national study

September 17, 2003

Madison - A new national study gives Wisconsin a C- for campaign finance disclosure.

The state’s mediocre grade is a generous assessment considering that the evaluation gives Wisconsin high marks for a relatively strong disclosure law but does not factor in enforcement of the law.

For example, Wisconsin gets credit for requiring candidates to report the occupations and employers of donors who give more than $100. However, in each of the last two years the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has identified large numbers of improperly reported contributions but the state Elections Board has taken no enforcement action.

In 2002, WDC found that 85 candidates did not report employer and occupational information for 668 large individual contributions worth over $323,000. The Elections Board took no enforcement action against any of the candidates. In 2001, the Democracy Campaign found three dozen state office holders who did not report the legally required employment information on 464 large contributions worth nearly $317,000. The Elections Board took no enforcement action in those instances, either.

Wisconsin also gets high marks in the evaluation for its law requiring electronic reporting of campaign finances. The study does not mention that the state’s "Citizens Right to Know" law was enacted in 1998 but was not implemented by the Elections Board until four years later when the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Wisconsin Citizen Action threatened a lawsuit seeking a court order.

Despite electronic filing, the Elections Board received a failing grade in the category of disclosure content accessibility. The evaluation is highly critical of the usability of the Elections Board’s web site, and notes that Wisconsin is one of only six states with mandatory electronic filing that does not offer searchable databases of campaign finance data online.

The lackluster grade for campaign finance disclosure is the latest illustration of the Elections Board’s poor performance, coming on the heels of a weak-kneed response to illegal campaign contributions in late July. The national evaluation also provides new evidence of the need for legislation reforming the Elections Board. Senate Bill 11 has won committee approval and awaits a vote in the full Senate.