While much of the focus on the mid-term elections was on who got elected, there were significant results regarding how candidates get elected and the ethics rules to which they are subject once in office. Important changes were approved in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, the City of Phoenix and potentially Utah.
In New Mexico and North Dakota, voters approved constitutional amendments creating an ethics commission for the first time. Both of these states scored badly on the S.W.A.M.P. Index, in large part because they had no independent ethics agency. New Mexico’s Constitutional Amendment 2 passed by 75 percent. It would add a new section establishing a state ethics commission with jurisdiction over state officers and employees of the executive and legislative branches. The Commission will have the power to initiate, receive, investigate and adjudicate complaints, issue subpoenas and issue advisory opinions, concerning violations of standards of ethical conduct, other standards of conduct and reporting requirements. While the details of the Commission’s powers will depend on legislative action, at a minimum New Mexico’s score on the S.W.A.M.P Index would increase from 36 to 45.
In North Dakota, Measure 1 passed by 53.6 percent. It creates an independent ethics commission but the amendment provides little detail about its jurisdiction (referring to “public officials” without definition) or powers (other than the ability to investigate). The Measure also bans the receipt by public officials of all gifts from lobbyists. The gift ban will move North Dakota’s score above zero but further details are needed before we can re-evaluate the state.
Missouri also improved its ethics laws by adopting Constitutional Amendment No. 1 by 62 percent. The amendment creates a $5 limit on gifts that state legislators and their employees can accept from paid lobbyists or the lobbyists’ clients. As a result, Missouri’s score in the S.W.A.M.P. Index would increase from 40 to 46.
Unfortunately, an effort to strengthen South Dakota’s independent ethics agency, the State Government Accountability Board, Constitutional Amendment W lost, getting only 45 percent. The measure would have given the Board jurisdiction over all elected officials, not just those in the executive branch and authority to impose sanctions, including fines, on any elected or appointed official, judge, or State or local government employee.
Missouri’s Constitutional Amendment No. 1 also addressed the critical issue of how candidates get elected, as did measures in Colorado, Michigan and possibly Utah — specifically the problems caused by gerrymandering. Missouri will now require a “non-partisan state demographer” to develop procedures for redistricting by the legislature. In Colorado, 71 percent approved an initiative to create a 12-member independent redistricting commission to handle redistricting for both Congressional and State legislative races, composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and four independents. The commission will be required to “maximize the number of politically competitive districts.”
Michigan’s Proposition 2 was approved by 61 percent. It establishes a 13-member redistricting commission and provides criteria for members and maps. The Commission will be composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and give independents, with the affirmative votes of at least seven members (two Democrats, two Republicans and two of the independent members).
In Utah, it is still not clear whether Proposition 4 has been approved (as of 3pm November 7). The measure, if passed, would create a seven-member independent redistricting commission to draft maps for congressional and state legislative districts.
Florida took an important step in ensuring representative voting, though in a different way. Amendment 4, which was passed by 64.5 percent, restores the right to vote for most convicted felons upon completion of their sentences, including prison terms, parole and probation. Those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense would not be eligible. This measure will likely allow more than one million people to vote.
Finally, the City of Phoenix, AZ, deserves credit for adopting a measure to bring full transparency to campaign financing for City elections. Proposition 419 was approved by 85 percent of voters. It requires disclosure of expenditures and “contributions including original and intermediary sources of major contributions.” In the S.W.A.M.P. Index, Phoenix would get more points on the campaign finance question than many states.
All of these ballot measures stem from actions of independent citizen organizations focused on enhancing good government and combatting corruption. The efforts demonstrate the impact of grass roots democracy, as a means to effect change.
Laurie Sherman is a Policy Advisor for the Coalition for Integrity working on a volunteer basis. She worked in the DC and NY offices of Paul Weiss for a number of years. She was the Anti-Corruption Advisor at the Mission to Serbia of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and held various positions in the State Department, Office of the U. S. Trade Representative, and Federal Communications Commission.
Shruti Shah is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity (formerly Transparency International-USA), where she leads the Coalition’s development and promotion of approaches to combat corruption in business and government.