One Montana political party sent hundreds of thousands of attack mailers in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, costing more than $400,000, without publicly reporting which candidates the mailers targeted or which they sought to benefit.
Among the mailers were 100,000 titled “Tax on Montanans” (cost: $48,000); 100,000 titled “Tax and SS” (also $48,000); and an unknown number labeled “Sandefur women” for $29,469.
Which party do you think sent them?
It was the Democratic Party, though readers who assumed Republicans must be behind any campaign finance shenanigans can be forgiven. After all, the Democrats have spent the better part of this decade casting dark money as one of democracy’s big boogeymen (and rightly so). The state party’s two most important figureheads, Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock, have both shown legislative leadership on the issue, with Bullock championing the rewrite of state campaign disclosure laws in 2015 that, his office claimed, made them the most stringent in the country.
So it’s both ironic and disappointing that the Montana Democratic Party would run afoul of a basic aspect of the law its governor helped write. In a ruling this month, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan found that the party failed to include information about the targets of more than two dozen independent expenditures, and failed even to list Montana Supreme Court Justice Dirk Sandefur as a candidate it was supporting.
The party responded by portraying its failure to adequately disclose spending as a clerical error, and then blaming that clerical error on a “deficiency” in the state’s software for filing reports. There’s some truth to the excuse. Mangan found that the party tried to enter all its information in a single box, instead of dividing it into the appropriate fields, which caused most of the information to be cut off by the software’s word limits.
That explanation sounds plausible and, to those inclined to support the party, entirely innocent. But Mangan also pointed out that the party had managed to use the software correctly on plenty of other occasions. Whether the result of careless bookkeeping or petty gamesmanship, the party’s misstep is not trivial. The whole point of the Disclose Act is to provide transparency, in real time, about who is spending money on what and to whose benefit or detriment.
You’d expect the party that pushed for the law would be a model for how to comply with it. Instead, the Democrats are making excuses.