Mississippi News

Watson: Mississippians should care about campaign finance reform

By Michael Watson, Mississippi Secretary of State

As I discussed at the Neshoba County Fair last summer, the need for campaign finance reform in Mississippi is serious, and the most recent election cycle has further highlighted this reality. Whether reporting mechanisms or accountability in reporting, this hotly contested topic is one all Mississippians should follow, and more importantly, understand.

Our state’s campaign finance laws are much weaker than most states with numerous loopholes in the current reporting requirements and inefficiencies in the system. Our outdated and convoluted process provides for inadequate enforcement due to the separation of responsibilities, lacks standardization, makes it easy to hide dark money, and needs technological updates to provide greater clarity for citizens and those seeking office.

But I am often asked, “Why does campaign finance reform matter?”

In short, campaign finance disclosure reports provide the quickest snapshot of the beliefs and principles of those holding and/or seeking office. These reports show from where a candidate is receiving campaign contributions and how the dollars are being spent.

Currently, the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office receives and serves as the repository for campaign finance disclosure reports for those seeking statewide and state district offices, and Political Action Committees (PACs) that seek to influence those elections. Mississippians seeking local offices, including municipal and county, must submit campaign finance reports to municipal clerks and county circuit clerks, respectively. When these entities don’t meet the required reporting deadlines, delinquent accounts are forwarded to the Ethics Commission to issue fines and the Attorney General’s Office to enforce fine payment. Centralizing the campaign finance structure would reduce the opportunity for miscommunication and mishaps between multiple entities, providing greater accountability for candidates.

The existing online campaign finance system simply isn’t conducive to reviewing or submitting reports and greatly needs updating. After numerous issues with the current online filing system, I made a difficult decision to prevent online submissions until we could install a reliable system worthy of Mississippians’ trust. Modernizing reporting technology with an online filing platform and search function would ensure Mississippians have easier access to the data on the reports. Updating the archaic system creates greater transparency and accountability, in addition to making the filing system more efficient and effective in operation.

Another example of why Mississippi needs campaign finance reform is the current campaign contribution structure allows for PAC-to-PAC contributions, making it easier to hide dark money. Since entities outside the state are not bound by state campaign finance laws, they can easily move money into the state without being tracked. By prohibiting PAC-to-PAC contributions, Mississippi voters will have more clarity on which organizations support candidates.

As elected officials, it is incumbent upon us to remember from where we came and who we represent. Every Mississippian should have access to and ask questions of their leaders. Through campaign finance reform, we ensure Mississippi has a better avenue for holding elected officials accountable.

This opinion-editorial article is provided by Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson.

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