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WE’RE DEAD LAST: Study calls Indiana’s campaign finance laws the weakest in the nation

When it comes to transparency and the regulation of contributions to political campaigns, Indiana ranks last in the nation, according to a first-ever analysis by the nonpartisan Coalition for Integrity.

The nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. ranked states based on 10 criteria for its State Campaign Finance Index 2022, and Indiana scored a 38.33 out of 100. The state of Washington topped the list at 83.99.

Coalition for Integrity takes into account who is in charge of election laws in each state; the amount of money individuals, corporations and unions can give to candidates or political parties; and the disclosure requirements for contributions, among other things.

The CEO of Coalition for Integrity, Shruti Shah, told The Statehouse File that the purpose of the index is to “help citizens understand a little bit better how their state’s campaign finance rules and regulations match up to others” and “give reform-minded legislators with a view to what other states are doing so if they’re trying to enact legislation, they have someplace to look.”

Indiana has an election commission with four members appointed to four-year terms by the governor. In general, individuals, political parties and political action committees can give unlimited money to candidates, while unions and corporations are limited to $22,000 a year.

In Washington, a five-member Public Disclosure Commission is also appointed by the governor but differs from Indiana in that members can be removed for “neglect of duty or misconduct in office.”

Washington also limits individuals, corporations, unions and PACs to $2,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for legislative candidates per election.

“But it’s not just about … banning donations by corporations and unions, or by limiting the amount of contributions by individuals,” Shah said.

In Indiana, Shah said there are no transparency laws around who gives money to Super PACs, and candidates must report contributions over $100—as opposed to Washington’s limit being set at $25.

OpenSecrets, a research group that studies money in politics, describes Super PACs as such: “Technically known as independent expenditure-only committees, super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit.”

The Statehouse File reached out to the Indiana Election Commission for comment, and the following statement was provided by Allen Carter, director of communications for the Indiana secretary of state:

“The office of the Indiana Secretary of State maintains a robust campaign finance transparency portal where citizens can find detailed financial records on campaigns and committees who are required by state law to disclose. Campaign finance records can be manually searched here: https://campaignfinance.in.gov/PublicSite/Homepage.aspx.”

Likewise, Luke Thomas, press secretary and digital director for the Indiana Republican Party, said information is easy to find, and he disagreed with the report’s assessment.

“Here in Indiana, campaign finance information is easily accessible and available to the public,” he said. “Regardless of what this ideologically-driven report states, we believe our reporting mechanisms are strong and that they provide important transparency for citizens.”

Indiana Democratic Party officials declined to comment.

Professor Gregory Shufeldt, who teaches political science at the University of Indianapolis, also spoke to The Statehouse File about the issue of campaign finances.

Shufeldt identified “unequal influence” and “corruption” as the two major problems people want to address through requiring transparency and regulating financing in campaigns.

Shufeldt said limiting political donations can create an illusion of fairness in which everyone, no matter their wealth, is limited in how much they contribute to a politician.

“From what we can tell, really on the history of trying to regulate money in politics, is that people that have the means and would like to find influence are going to find a way to influence,” Shufeldt said. “And so when we place caps on the amount of money that people can give directly to candidates, that money finds its way to political parties and new interest groups and super PACs. And so, in some ways, trying to place limits on things can often have an unintended consequence of making the money go dark and make it harder to track.”

Creating an “appearance of leveling the playing field,” however, “restores confidence in the system and makes people feel like they can have an impact,” according to Shufeldt.

“If everything stayed the same and Indiana had Washington’s laws, I think we would expect to see the same types of political parties dominate Indiana politics, we would see the same types of candidates win, and I don’t actually think that we would necessarily see a change in voter turnout,” Shufeldt said. “But what we would see is that voters would be more confident in their ability to impact the system or more trusting of the system.”

Both Shufeldt and Shah agree there is no one law that will make a difference—no “silver bullet,” as Shah put it.

And while Shufeldt thinks more transparency would impact those already voting in Indiana, the civic education that Hoosier kids receive and the fact that many races aren’t competitive are holding back any meaningful change in civic engagement.

“And so to see the sort of whole change in our political culture, it would take more than just these specific campaign finance laws,” Shefeldt said. “It would take a more fundamental change in Hoosiers’ orientation toward government.”

Jack Sells is a reporter at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.