June 10, 2013 9:40:35 AM
JACKSON -- If you want to know who's spending money to influence voters in Mississippi, you may have a hard time getting a complete picture.
State candidates have to file reports of their donations and spending with the secretary of state. So do political action committees. But reports from political action committees may not make it clear what those groups are supporting or opposing. And a recent study warns that other kinds of communications meant to influence voters aren't tracked at all in Mississippi.
That study, from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, flunked Mississippi's system for tracking what outside groups are doing to influence elections. It's another report that gives Mississippi a failing grade. But the Magnolia State has a lot of company, with 25 other states also getting an "F." Independent expenditures are a rising trend nationally, with more people spending money on their own messages of opposition or support instead of giving money to a candidate or political party.
The institute is a valuable source on how money is spent in Mississippi campaigns. It combs through the reports submitted to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and digitizes the data, allowing users to learn things that can only be arduously added up from the copies of the reports posted by the state. For example, users can search for how much a particular person contributed to every state candidate running in a particular election.
This report says that while Mississippi does a good job of tracking groups that expressly advocate for or against a candidate, it doesn't do anything to track what are called "electioneering communications." Those are messages that are sent out or aired close to an election and mention a candidate without expressly calling for the candidate's election or defeat.
The failure to track electioneering communications is a common fault of states that scored low in the survey.
But even traditional PAC spending can be difficult to make sense of in Mississippi. Take, for example, the case of Advance Mississippi PAC.
Democrats were fuming at outside spending after the 2011 elections when they lost control of the state House. But unusually, one of the survivors, Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, sued the Brandon-based PAC, saying it libeled him by making false claims in mailers.
Advance Mississippi took in $288,000 from groups representing bankers, doctors, manufacturers, Realtors, chicken processors and others pushing the Republican takeover of the House.
That may not sound like much. But because Mississippi House districts have fewer than 25,000 voters apiece, it doesn't take much to influence a race.
In Advance Mississippi's case, it spent the money on advertising and political consulting firms. But you can't tell from the form what races the committee was involved in. If Baria hadn't sued them, the firm's role in his election might have gone undocumented.
It's not even easy to tell what a committee or campaign is buying. Mississippi's spending forms have a blank to describe the purpose of spending, but it's optional to fill out.
Only once did Advance Mississippi fill out the blank, saying that some of the money it spent with Innovative Advertising of Covington, La., was for direct mail.