Commissioners devoted much of their July meeting to discussing what the PDC might include in its request for new laws during the 2022 legislative session. They were joined by two lawmakers in that discussion.
Rep. Gerry Pollet spoke about his proposal on grassroots lobbying programs aimed at the public that are designed to influence state legislation. Grassroots lobbying campaigns that exceed certain spending thresholds must register with the PDC and report their activity monthly, but reports for the month are not due until the 10th of the next month.
Pollet noted that the law was effective when postal mailings were one of few choices available for campaigns. But he said digital communication technology now allows grassroots campaigns to influence legislation in a matter of hours, for very little money, without legislators or the public knowing the source of the communication.
He asked the Commission to collaborate on legislation that would require more timely, detailed and frequent reporting from grassroots lobbying groups, and require disclosure of top five contributors for lobbying campaigns spending over a designated threshold. Commissioners indicated they would back the proposal.
Currently, contributions of $1,000 or more given or received within 21 days of a general election (and within seven days of a primary) must be disclosed in special PDC reports. The requirement allows voters to see the source of the contributions.
But large contributions made just before the 21-day window can be treated as a standard contribution, and deposited up to five business days later.
This means voters who send in their mail-in ballots early may vote without the ability to learn the source of a large contribution that's funding campaign ads. Ramel urged the Commission to address what he sees as a loophole in the law.
Kathy Sakahara of the League of Women Voters of Washington said during the meeting's public comment period that her group supports changing the time frame for reporting last-minute contributions so that information is available before people vote.
"We no longer have an election day," she said. "We have an election fortnight the couple of weeks when people are voting."
The current campaign reporting schedule is tied to a single election date. But since the advent of all vote-by-mail elections in 2011, voters receive ballots weeks in advance and may cast their ballots well before election day.
Commissioners said that asking the Legislature to address the timing of reports could be one of their priorities for next year.
"The world has changed. This is not the election season we had in 1972," Commission Chair Fred Jarrett said, referencing the year Initiative 276 which created the PDC was approved by Washington voters.
Conner Edwards, a campaign treasurer, also urged the Commission to raise the threshold for last-minute contribution reports to account for inflation. The Commission could consider doing that through rule-making next year.
Commissioners also expressed interest in addressing other issues with legislative changes. They include:
- Disclaimers on political ads that include endorsements, acknowledging if the endorsement was made for the current election or a previous one, and if the endorsement was made for a different elected office
- Clarifying the definition of a ballot proposition so it matches a 2019 court interpretation
- Establishing a permanent independent funding source for the PDC
- Clarifying when contribution limits apply to political committees working on recall campaigns.
The Commission plans further discussion of legislative priorities at its Aug. 26 meeting.
New meeting format
Chair Jarrett noted that the July meeting marked the first time commissioners had gathered in person in Olympia since February 2020, due to the pandemic.
New protocols govern occupancy limits for the Commission meeting room, requiring guests wishing to address the Commission in person to wait in a separate conference room until it was their turn to speak. Others participated online or by phone. At the same time, the Commission meeting was livestreamed so that members of the public could watch it.
Jarrett asked for patience while the agency learns how to operate in hybrid mode.
He also noted that the Commission is now made up of only three commissioners, since the June resignation of Russell Lehman. Another seat as yet unfilled had opened on the Commission with the completion of the term of David Ammons in December 2020.
"We are working with the governor to try to re-provision our Commission to the full five as quickly as possible," Jarrett said.
Digital political ads
The PDC took a first step toward making rules that will govern a quickly evolving area of campaign finance.
PDC staff plans to invite public comment at the Aug. 26 Commission meeting on a set of draft rules for digital political ads.
The public will be invited to comment on any portion of the rules, but staff is particularly interested to hear from the public about three topics:
- Should campaigns be required to notify commercial advertisers that an order is political advertising, and what should campaigns be required to report to the PDC about the ads they purchase?
- Should commercial advertisers be allowed more time to respond to disclosure requests in instances where the sponsor has not told indicated that the order was political advertising?
- What particular details about digital political advertising are important for the public to know? The rule currently requires digital platforms to provide a copy of the ad, the name and address of the person actually paying for the advertising, the total cost of the ad, date and method of payment, demographic targeting, and number of impressions, among other details.
PDC staff opened 19 cases since June 22, with 12 additional complaints pending as of the Commission meeting date.
Staff have completed three group enforcement processes, looking for missing lobbyist reports, missing lobbyist employer reports and for missing personal financial affairs statements from public officials. A total of 40 group enforcement cases were closed between June 16 and July 14.
PDC staff also closed 12 other compliance cases.
To learn what else was discussed at the July meeting, see the full Commission agenda.
Next Commission meeting: Aug. 26, 2021