Better UTAH Beat Episode 55 – July 9, 2013

There’s now no question that Americans–and that includes Utahns–are fast losing confidence in their elected leaders. A poll released last month by Gallup placed Congress at the bottom of a list of 16 public institutions based on how much confidence Americans have in them. Congress came in last with only 10 percent of respondents expressing confidence in the people’s branch. Beating out Congress was organized labor, big business, and even banks. And at the top of the list? The military. A whopping 76 percent of Americans are confident in the military.

There is a crisis of confidence when Americans trust authoritarian institutions more than they trust democratic ones.

But this isn’t just an American problem that Utah is isolated from. We distrust our leaders here, too. According to a June poll by BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, Attorney General John Swallow has a 12 percent approval rating, about on par with Congress’s own approval rating. Utahns no longer trust Swallow. Our own informal polling suggests that this lack of confidence is leaking into other areas of governance. In fact, 80 percent of respondents, half of which identified themselves as political moderates, say the Attorney General scandal has negatively affected their confidence in other state leaders.

Though in the case of the Attorney General the reason for that distrust might be obvious–new allegations about John Swallow’s unethical behaviors emerge weekly–the reason for generalized trust is a little more unclear. What is wrong with American institutions of governance like Congress, presumably an institution over which Americans exercise the most control–we do, after all, vote them in and out of office–that we should be so loathe to trust? Why this sense of powerlessness?

Such an answer might lie in the  way money and speech are conflated in today’s campaign finance laws. It has become a pay-to-play game. Which means voters can no longer rely on a candidate’s stump speech and voting record when making decisions about whom to vote for. Today, voters need to know who has donated to a candidate since that candidate’s last stump speech and last floor vote if they are going to really understand who to support. But this information can be notoriously difficult to access if you aren’t a political insider.

The ABU Education Fund, an affiliate of the Alliance for a Better UTAH, has created a financial disclosure website that anyone can easily access online at followthemoney.abueducation.org. The open-access Utah Disclosures Search consists of raw data gathered from campaign finance reports, available on the Utah Lt. Governor’s website, that have been collated into an easily searchable database.

This information was always available on the Lt. Governor’s website, but it was so much more difficult to access. Think of it this way, using the Lt. Governor’s bureaucratic-laden database was like searching for a dozen different colored needles in a dozen different haystacks. This database finds all those needles, and puts them in color-coded piles. It will save people time and the typical frustration that comes with wading through the individual disclosures.

Even though the database will provide much needed information to Utah voters, it still doesn’t solve the problem of bad campaign finance laws. Attorney General John Swallow is currently being investigated by the Lt. Governor’s Office over allegations that he broke election laws by failing to disclose his business interests before running for attorney general. Though this database could not have prevented his actions, it may have been able to shed light on the curious and concerning donations that Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, were soliciting.

Technology isn’t alway the answer, but in the absence of real campaign finance reform, an easy way to follow the money might just be the next best thing.

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