Alabama scored 41.5 in the Political Financing category on the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 42nd among states.
The biggest reason for Alabama’s dismal showing in this category is that the state does not cap political contributions to political candidates from any source. The state had capped contributions from corporations, but it lifted that cap beginning in 2013.
The only significant restriction the state places on political financing is a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, which when approved in 2010 ended what had become an extensive shell game of moving money through multiple PACs so the source was obscured by the time it reached the candidate.
People and corporations can – and do – still deflect attention from their donations by giving to multiple PACs, however. And while some states have adopted rules that require a PAC’s name to reflect its true purpose, Alabama has not. The state has a plethora of “good government” PACs, with names that tell voters nothing about the committees’ funding or goals.
The state does have strong campaign finance disclosure requirements that require candidates and parties to report donations of $100 or more. The reports must be filed frequently, especially close to the election date. However, until this year, no one was charged with monitoring contribution reports and investigating suspected wrongdoing. That changed in September. A new law gives the Alabama Ethics Commission the authority to investigate alleged violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act, with the aid of the Secretary of State’s Office. If the commission determines there is reason to believe the act has been violated, it may forward the information to the attorney general or a district attorney for prosecution.
In another change approved by the Legislature this year, the Secretary of State’s Office and the probate judges will be given the authority to levy administrative penalties against candidates who do not file reports on time and forward cases of repeat offenders to the Attorney General’s Office. The change will be made beginning with the 2018 elections. Now, state law makes failure to file the reports a crime and lays out punishments for those who violate financial election laws, but it does not require any government office to monitor election activity to spot violations.
Also in the state’s favor in this category, the public can easily access financial disclosures online through the website of the Secretary of State’s Office. Beginning in 2014, any committee that collects more than $10,000 had to start filing those disclosures electronically, and those forms are available in a searchable database. Before that, many of the disclosure forms were filed as simple typed lists, and some even were handwritten sheets scanned in and uploaded to the website.
However, there still are several drawbacks that make it difficult for reporters or other members of the public to nail down the interests backing some candidates. The first is that individual contributions are listed with the donors’ names and address, but there are no affiliations listed. The second potential drawback is that political action committees can be listed several ways – by full name, acronym or PACronym, and sometimes by misinterpretations of the actual name. For instance, the Alabama Independent Auto Dealers Association has one PAC that sometimes is listed by that name, and other times by A.I.A.D.A, Auto-PAC, AUTOPAC, or, mistakenly, by AIADA or a variation.