Reforming Wisconsin Elections

Wisconsin has had a reputation fro progressive politics and squeaky clean government. It has been the first state to initiate a lot of political reform. Among these being the banning of corporate contributions to political campaigns in the early 1900s and prohibition of legislators from receiving gifts from lobbyists. Following the Watergate scandal, Wisconsin set up a new system of public financing where limits were placed on voluntary spending and campaign contributions and candidates were granted funding from public funds in which the state contributed one dollar from the state’s income tax (McCabe, 2002)

Wisconsin’s current campaign finance laws regulate campaign finance depending on two functions, contribution and expenditure with separate reporting requirements and dollar limits. (Wisconsin Briefs, 2001) Contributions refer to money donated directly to individual candidates or political committees. The recipients decide how the money will be spent. Individuals and organizations contributing are required by law to report their contributions. The state limits contributions for state or local office while those for federal office are limited by federal campaign laws.

Expenditure by candidates from personal funds or from individuals, groups and political committees acting independently are not limited as they are considered free expression and are therefore protected by the First amendment (Wisconsin Briefs, 2001). Hard money refers to contributions on which limits have been placed while soft money is the unlimited and undeclared information that goes towards the electoral process (). Wisconsin limits individual contributions to $10000 per calendar year for all political contributions.

Conduits, groups of individuals who pool resources to make a contribution but are not registered as a political group, are also treated as individuals and have a similar limit( WISDC, 2007). Corporations and labor unions are not allowed by Wisconsin law to make direct contributions to political committees rather they have to form political action committees (PAC) that make contributions and independent expenditures. A PAC cannot make a contribution of more than $6000 to a political party in a year. (WISDC, 2007).

Different limits are placed on legislative offices with regards to PAC contributions, $500 for Assembly and $1000 for Senate while higher amounts are given fro constitutional office such as $12939 for Governor, $21564 for Lieutenant Governor , $8625 for Attorney General to list but a few. There is no limit to the amount that a PAC can give all committees but there is a limit to the amount that a recipient can get from a PAC. Candidates should not receive amounts exceeding 45% of their spending limits for their offices. Reporting requirements hold that contributors of more than $20 a year are identified in reports.

A campaign treasurer must be given the duty of filing statements. To promote greater public accessibility, electronic filing is required for donations of $20000 and above following the Wisconsin Act 230 of 1997(Wisconsin Briefs, 2001) Candidates and everyone subjected to reporting requirements are also required by law to disclose sources of contribution through mass media communications such as television, billboards with the words, ‘paid for’ to indicate which organization is responsible for that communication (Wisconsin Briefs, 2001)

Soft money, the main problem in campaign finance reform finds its way into Wisconsin politics in two ways. First, the limitation on PAC contribution does not include transfers from affiliates of the party. Until the McCain-Feingold bill took effect, corporations made soft money contributions to committees of the national party which in turn transferred funds to the state committees (WISDC, 2007). Issue ads are also an avenue for soft money entry since with them individuals, groups and corporations can make unlimited and undisclosed contributions.

Sham issue ads are ads that criticize a candidate but do not mention an upcoming election, allowing it to circumvent legal limits on campaign financing (Savage, 2007). In 1996 issue ads appeared in the state elections and led to the reintroduction of corporate funding into election campaigns. Wisconsin does not have laws that regulate communications that are timed to influence elections (WSIDC, Brennan Center Report, 2007). Consequently large amounts of money spent on campaign advertising are exempt from disclosure requirements, hence the widespread use of sham issue ads.