Legislators Propose Bill to Extend Transparency to Local Connecticut Elections


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STAMFORD – A bill wending its way through the state legislature would make it easy for voters to see the names of contributors to candidates running for office in their city or town.

The goal is to allow the public to search campaign finance reports for local political campaigns, as Connecticut already does for state campaigns.

“Transparency into local elections and who is running in them would be greatly increased” if the bill is passed, according to testimony from Michael Brandi, executive director and general counsel of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Brandi submitted written testimony Monday in support of Senate Bill 262, An Act Concerning Municipal Campaign Finance Filings. 

If it becomes law, it “will have real-world benefits to the citizens and reporters who want to know who is spending what at the local level on matters that affect them directly, from referenda on buildings and budgets to school board elections,” Brandi wrote. 

“In an age where the use of AI in elections to create misinformation and deep-fake advertising is a high-level concern, transparency as to who is spending on advertising is critical and this bill will do a great deal to improve transparency for elections at the local level,” he wrote.

Now, candidates for Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities file campaign finance reports with their town clerk. 

“In almost all cases, this means that such filings are stored in 169 filing cabinets and are electronically inaccessible to the public,” Brandi wrote.

If all that information is electronically searchable through SEEC, as the bill proposes, “patterns of outside spending (will) become easily detectable,” Brandi wrote. 

“Effectively, spending in local elections is currently buried,” he wrote. “This would bring it into the light.”

Sixteen years ago the state legislature launched the $1 million Electronic Campaign Reporting Information System, known as eCRIS, in an effort to increase transparency in political campaign financing. 

“Disclosure is instantaneous and available from any computer or phone,” Brandi wrote.

The system is considered “an essential component of Connecticut’s landmark campaign finance reform legislation,” according to SEEC’s website. 

Brandi wrote that eCRIS has worked so well that SEEC wants to extend it to the municipal level, where town clerks report that they do not have the resources to process what can be overwhelming numbers of local campaign finance reports.

“The benefits of this system can be extended to municipalities with little additional cost to the state,” Brandi wrote.

Stamford Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter submitted written testimony supporting Senate Bill 262.

“For large cities like Stamford, the SEEC filings for municipal elections amount to a huge burden for the town clerk,” Ruijter wrote. 

During Stamford’s 2021 municipal election, for instance, more than 120 candidates were required to file SEEC’s Form 1 within 10 days of becoming a candidate, she wrote. 

“It’s logistically and practically nearly impossible to meet with this many candidates during such a short period of time, determine the accuracy of their forms, and offer advice,” Ruijter wrote. “Determining, then, if any candidate failed to file their form is nearly impossible.”

During that election, the mayoral candidates in Stamford raised more than $1 million combined, she said.

 “The town clerk’s office doesn’t have the staffing or expertise to adequately determine the accuracy of such large filings,” Ruijter wrote. “Moreover, contributions and expenditures of this magnitude may have relevance beyond the municipality (and) should be accessible at the state level, as proposed in this bill.”

Stratford Town Clerk Susan Pawluk agreed, saying campaign filings at election time add to the regular workload of filing land records, issuing marriage, birth and death certificates, and more.

“It is difficult keeping track of when a campaign filed their statements, or if they failed to file,” Pawluk wrote. “Town clerk responsibilities have increased with issuing absentee ballots in greater numbers, and with working with the registrars of voters with the new early-voting legislation … It is too easy to miss if someone had not filed their statements in time, or at all.”

Waterbury Town Clerk Antoinette “Chick” Spinelli, co-chair of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, testified that the group strongly supports Senate Bill 262 because it “will afford the public the ability to view all campaign finance forms from one online portal at any time.”

About two dozen towns took part in a pilot program using the eCris system in 2017, and it proved to streamline campaign finance reporting, eliminate confusion over SEEC regulations, and increase efficiency for campaign treasurers, Spinelli wrote.

As of Tuesday, none of the submitted written testimony opposed Senate Bill 262. Other supporters included Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group; Carol Rizzolo of Guilford, head Connecticut Shoreline Indivisible and Safe Vote CT; and  Pamela Klem, campaign finance specialist with the League of Women Voters of Connecticut.

According to Brandi, Senate Bill 262 “is a re-proposal of a bill (SEEC has) been running for several years now.” It wasn’t clear Tuesday where the bill heads next. This year’s legislative session ends May 8. 

SEEC was created by the Connecticut legislature in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, “to ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process.” SEEC inspects campaign finance records, investigates possible wrongdoing, refers evidence of violations to law enforcement, and recommends changes in state election laws. 

SEEC has full subpoena power, can impound voting machines and absentee ballots, and has the authority to require that political contributions be forfeited and to impose civil penalties against violators.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.