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Independents unwitting beneficiary of campaign finance law

A law passed in 2017 was intended to drive out 'dark money' from election, but the wording of one exemption may force statewide debate hosts to invite third-party candidates

JAIME VALDEZ/PORTLAND TRIBUNE - Patrick Starnes, Independent Party of Oregon nominee for governorThe Independent Party of Oregon is using a relatively new state law to try to spur hosts to include the party's nominee, Patrick Starnes, in upcoming gubernatorial debates.

The legislators who proposed the law via House Bill 2505 in 2017 say their intent was not to force media companies and other debate hosts to include the IPO in the events.

Starnes, a cabinet maker from Brownsville, won the IPO nomination last month. He is up against Democratic incumbent Gov. Kate Brown and GOP nominee Rep. Knute Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon from Bend.

PARIS ACHEN/PAMPLIN FILE PHOTO - Oregon Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-EugeneRep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, said the intent of House Bill 2505 was to drive out "dark money" from elections.

"The topic of the legislation was campaign finance reform, to improve transparency and reporting; the topic was not political debates," Nathanson said. "The exception for non-partisan activities, such as publishing voter guides or conducting forums, etc., was written so that there was no need to report when those activities were clearly non-partisan and not intended to influence an election and only to provide access to information in an impartial way."

The law requires disclosure of $750 or more of spending by individuals and nonprofit groups that reference, and effectively campaign for or against, a candidate within 30 days of an election. Previously, individuals and groups didn't have to report that type of spending unless they included words such as "elect" or "vote for" in public communications.

House Bill 2505 specifically exempts from the requirement nonpartisan candidate debates or forums for a state office "when all major political party candidates for the state office have been invited to participate."

The IPO is using that wording to argue that upcoming gubernatorial debate hosts, such as KGW-TV, must either invite candidates from all three major parties, or report an in-kind campaign contribution for the cost of the debate and advertising to the candidates who were allowed to participate.

The IPO became Oregon's third major political party in 2015 after party members accounted for more than 5 percent of voters who turned out for the 2014 general election.

Starnes said last week that he still has not been invited to any of the gubernatorial debates, though at least one debate host said formal invitations have yet to be sent out.

Journalists organizing a debate would likely object to reporting an in-kind campaign contribution to any candidate, because it would jeopardize their impartiality in reporting.

"Whether or not ... inviting some but not all candidates (to debates) constitute a campaign contribution, omitting any duly nominated candidate does have the effect of leaving the public in the dark about that candidate, which is contrary to the purpose of a debate - to inform the public," said Kyle Markley, a member of the Task Force on Campaign Finance and a former Libertarian candidate for House District 30 in Hillsboro.

The Oregon Secretary of State's Office did not respond to requests for comment on the accuracy of the IPO's interpretation of the law.

When lawmakers were considering House Bill 2505, the League of Women Voters of Oregon spoke out against it. The league saw no clear benefit to the new requirements but foresaw the possibility of unintended consequences, said Norman Turrill, the league's president.

"Maybe applying it to debates is one of the unintended consequences," Turrill said.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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