Change means most Georgians won’t know who funded campaigns before they vote

201017-Marietta-There were no lines to vote at the East Cobb Government Center in Marietta on Saturday afternoon, October 17, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

201017-Marietta-There were no lines to vote at the East Cobb Government Center in Marietta on Saturday afternoon, October 17, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Georgia ethics commission has moved the deadline to file campaign reports to the eve of the Nov. 3 election, meaning voters will go to the polls having little chance to see who funded the state campaigns they are voting on.

David Emadi, executive secretary of the commission, said an obscure section of Georgia’s campaign finance law forced the agency to move the deadline from the Friday before the election to election eve.

Since some campaigns and political action committees and others wait until the last minute, they could be filing at 11:59 p.m. the night before the election.

The final pre-election reports are important because millions of last-minute dollars flow into campaigns in years like 2020, when Georgia has attracted national attention because polls show close races for president, two U.S. Senate seats and congressional contests in metro Atlanta.

State reports show contributions and spending in crucial legislative races, as well as party and political action committee money going into contests up and down the ballot.

“Technically, they could file at 11:59 p.m. and people could go to the polls without seeing the reports,” Emadi said. “It may not be ideal, but it’s my duty to follow the law.”

Many if not a majority of Georgians will have voted by Election Day — either through absentee voting or early voting.

Nonetheless, Rick Thompson, a board member of the commission — formally called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — called the move of filing deadlines “unfortunate.”

“The situation does not contribute to the mission of the agency and the public’s trust,” Thompson said.

State candidates, PACs and so-called “independent” committees that back candidates last filed in early October, detailing who was funding their efforts through Sept. 30.

The final pre-election reports are technically due Oct. 25, but those groups are given a grace period of five working days, meaning they really until Oct. 30 to file reports.

Emadi noted that state law extends that grace period when the official deadline falls on a weekend. Oct. 25 is a Sunday. So instead of being due Oct. 30, they are now due by the end of Nov. 2. Candidates who receive contributions of $1,000 or more will still have to file separate reports detailing those individual donations within two days of getting that money after the Oct. 25 deadline, although few people outside of candidates and campaigns know about those filings.

Candidates would have to pay a $125 late fee if they wait to disclose contributors until after the election.

The change helps Thompson’s business, since his firm files reports for campaigns and it gives him extra time to do so. But he’s not happy about it.

“It is my understanding the change aligns to the law,” Thompson said. "It will be important moving forward to work with the agency, the Legislature and all stakeholders to ensure the same circumstances don’t repeat itself down the road.

“Transparency is the mission and the ‘must do’ of this agency."

Emadi said he may include a change in state campaign finance filing law in the ethics package his agency is expected to propose to the 2021 General Assembly.

The State Campaign Finance & Transparency Commission has moved up the campaign report deadline to the eve of the election, meaning Georgians will go to the poll with little to know time to find out who is funding candidates and political groups trying to influence the vote.

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