Financial disclosures of public officials should include detailed listings of campaign donations and personal business dealings if voters are to use public records to judge the character of a lawmaker. In this regard, knowledge is indeed power.
Constituents need to know who is contributing to the campaigns of their representatives. They also should know who their lawmakers are conducting business with to determine whether there might be a conflict of interest.
Many elected officials have balked at efforts to place limits on campaign contributions from what Common Cause and other ethics watchdog groups have called questionable special interests. Instead, some lawmakers have asserted that if these campaign contributions are reported, then it should be up to the voters to decide if they are inappropriate. That sounds reasonable, but it is not always easy to decipher the information listed on state campaign disclosure forms.
Tennessee election law requires lawmakers to reveal many details about their personal finances. Legislators are also required to list positions, such as director, trustee, board member or corporate officer, they now hold or formerly held in any business, nonprofit organization or school. Such information could prove quite helpful to voters. However, it is up to constituents to seek out this information, which can be found online at the Registry of Election Finance’s website (www.tn.gov//tref/).
Voters might find a review of candidates personal information even more interesting as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that erased federal restrictions prohibiting corporations and labor unions from contributing directly to political campaigns. Tennessee lawmakers followed suit this year by doing away with state restrictions on corporate donations.
Now, more than ever, voters must inspect financial disclosures filed by lawmakers to determine if anything inappropriate is going on between contributors and candidates.
In addition to the state’s Registry of Election Finance’s website, you can go to Opensecrets.org, a website that collects campaign contribution data on who is giving to elected officials and candidates for state and federal offices. Opensecrets.org offers a broad picture of where a candidate is getting his or her campaign donations. The information goes back 10 years and allows users to search the data base by ZIP codes to find out who raised the most money in their neighborhoods and who wrote the biggest checks.
Citizens should do their homework before going to the polls because it’s educated voters who are ultimately responsible for holding public officials accountable for their actions.