A recent analytical news release from the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) showed that county political party committees raised $14.3 million and spent $13.2 million in 2021.
Although county political party financial activity last year was the highest since the previous gubernatorial election in 2017, county committee activity was significantly lower than in the first decade of the 21st century.
In 2003, county party committees spent $27 million. So even in the 2003 non-governor’s election year, county party spending was more than double the $13.2 million spent by these committees last year.
This long, two-decade downward trend in county party financial activity mirrors that of state and municipal party entities as well.
While county party financial activity increased during gubernatorial election years, no comparable increase in the financial activity of these committees occurred during non-gubernatorial election years. of governor. In fact, county party committee financial activity has increased an average of 30 percent over the past six years of government compared to a similar period of non-gubernatorial election years.
One thing that stands out in the 2021 election year is that county parties received a significant portion of their contributions from groups and individuals outside and inside New Jersey.
Significant spending has been disclosed by groups like the Democratic Governors Association, state union affiliates and wealthy individuals like Democratic donor Stacy Schusterman and Republican state chairman Bob Hugin.
Although a lot of financial information has been leaked, a significant amount of money spent in last year’s gubernatorial and legislative elections came from independent groups, dubbed “Dark Money.” Under New Jersey law, these groups are only required to report to the League if they specifically support or oppose candidates in an election. Even then, they only have to declare their expenses, not their contributions.
If independent spending groups refrain from using “magic words” like “support” or “oppose” in their campaign ads, and instead rely on issue-oriented election ads to attack or promote candidates, neither their contributions nor their expenses need be reported to the League under current law.
Fortunately, some independent big spenders voluntarily disclose both their contributions and expenses to ELEC. But such disclosure could disappear overnight without a new state law requiring it.
In the 2021 gubernatorial election, spending by independent and outside groups increased 69%, from $24.5 million in 2017 to $41.7 million last year. The $41.7 million represented nearly 46 percent of the total spent on gubernatorial elections (including general, primary, and pre-primary expenses).
Similarly, total spending in last year’s legislative contest reached $49.2 million, with 27% coming from independent groups who spent $13.5 million (general election only).
Compared to the 2005 gubernatorial election year, when there was only $411,224 in independent spending, overall outside group spending of $57.5 million in the 2021 in New Jersey represented an astronomical increase of 13,884%.
While spending by independent groups has skyrocketed, financial activity by political parties has declined. For example, in 2005, the two state parties, four legislative leadership committees and 42 county parties collectively spent $38.7 million compared to $411,224 by outside groups.
By 2021, spending by state party entities and county political parties had fallen to $30.3 million, down 22% from 2005, while spending by independent groups for elections states reached $57.5 million.
Participation in independent group elections is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, their increased influence in New Jersey elections and the concomitant decrease in influence of more regulated and accountable political parties is not in the best interest of the electoral process.
If political parties can be required to disclose their contributions and expenditures, in order to be transparent about their financial activities, then the same standard of transparency should be applied to independent groups when involved in election-related activities.
It is important for the public to know who is behind these groups as well as the law enforcement agencies that have found disclosure to be a useful tool in tracking down illegal activity.
Political parties are more regulated by law, both in terms of how and when they are organized and in terms of disclosure of their financial activity. Parties provide a guide to voting, help moderate the process of government, organize government, and help with voting participation.
It is important to note that the public can usually make the connection between the party and the candidates, whereas it is often difficult to do so between a candidate and a political attack ad led by an independent group.
There are myriad reasons why political parties should be strengthened and independent groups required to disclose their campaign finance activities, not the least of which is to restore balance to the electoral process and more transparency for the public. .
Over the years, the Election Law Enforcement Commission has proposed legislation that would provide balance and strengthen democracy. Among the proposals are: 1) disclosure of contributions and expenses of independent groups when engaged in election-related activities;
2) disclosure by public contractors of contributions to independent groups; 3) increase in contribution limits on contributions to parties; 4) withdrawal of games from pay-to-play; 5) the inclusion of special interest PACs in pay-to-play; 6) allow parties to participate in gubernatorial elections; and 7) allowing county parties to create parties in the primary election using remittances.
Hopefully the legislature will consider these proposals and come up with legislation that will bring greater transparency to the electoral process and strengthen traditional political parties.
Jeff Brindle is the executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
The opinions presented here are his own and not necessarily those of the Commission.
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