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‘We are paying attention’: Idaho Secretary of State sees influx of campaign finance complaints

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‘We are paying attention’: Idaho Secretary of State sees influx of campaign finance complaints

May 16, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Mia Maldonado
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‘We are paying attention’: Idaho Secretary of State sees influx of campaign finance complaints
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Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane is sworn in on the steps of the State Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

In April, the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office sent a letter to a group based in the Magic Valley asking it to comply with campaign finance laws. 

The group, the Magic Valley Liberty Alliance, had created and sent out unofficial voter guides to local residents highlighting the platforms of candidates who stood against abortion, “woke ideologies” and tax reduction. 

While the group said on the guides that they had paid for those materials, there were no records of the group having registered as a political committee with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

‘We are paying attention’: Idaho Secretary of State sees influx of campaign finance complaints
The Magic Valley Liberty Alliance began distributing materials before registering with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office as a political committee. (Screenshot from Magic Valley Liberty Alliance website)

Under Idaho law, political committees are required to register with the Secretary of State’s Office before receiving contributions or making expenditures to support or oppose candidates. The Magic Valley Liberty Alliance had failed to comply with the law, so the Secretary of State’s Office ordered the group to cease distributing its materials until it was in compliance, along with imposing a $1,000 fine.

The liberty alliance could not be reached for comment.

The Magic Valley Liberty Alliance is just one example of compliance issues the Secretary of State’s Office has faced this election cycle. As the chief election officer of Idaho, the secretary of state is responsible for promoting voter participation, maintaining the voter registration database and enforcing campaign finance and lobbying regulations. 

Idaho legislative candidates have more than doubled the amount of money raised toward their campaigns from the 2022 primary election to this year. With more money coming into campaigns this year, more than 60 campaign finance complaints have been filed with the office, Idaho Secretary of State Phil McGrane told the Idaho Capital Sun.

“It’s important for the public to know that we are paying attention and enforcing these rules,” McGrane said in a phone interview. “It’s also good for the candidates to know that these rules are being enforced.”

More money in Idaho campaigns means more mistakes

McGrane said compliance and transparency are the goals he seeks to achieve when enforcing a campaign finance violation. 

Compliance refers to ensuring that all political committees are following the same rules, and transparency refers to making sure the public can track where money is coming from on the secretary of state’s website. 

Mistakes the office has seen in campaign finance filings include: 

  • The use of fake names in Sunshine, Idaho’s Campaign Finance System
  • Not including “paid for by,” in political advertisements, including robocalls and texts
  • Use of state seal in political advertisements

Some of the issues are easy to dismiss once they are fixed. Other mistakes have resulted in fines.

“That can be civil fines,” McGrane said. “There’s also the potential of criminal liability. It can be a misdemeanor to violate many of these statutes. We also have support from the Attorney General’s Office to receive legal support in case we need to issue a fine or pursue anything in court.”

One out-of-state group that spent $76,000 to oppose House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, called Retire Career Politicians, had also received a letter to comply with Idaho law.

The D.C.-based group had not registered in Idaho as a political committee, so last week, the Secretary of State’s Office sent it a letter asking them to register as a political committee by Tuesday, Idaho EdNews reported. Retire Career Politicians did not respond to Idaho EdNews’ interview request.

“We have people who are intentionally obscuring things, we have people who are not following the rules because they’re not paying attention, and then we have people who are happy to follow the rules,” McGrane said.

‘We’ve become the tattle-tale department’: secretary says

While the secretary of state enforces reporting money in campaigns, it does not regulate what political committees say about Idaho candidates. 

“We’ve become the tattle-tale department,” McGrane said about the campaign finance complaints his office has received. “Like, when someone says ‘someone is picking on me please tell them to stop.’ That’s not how this works.”

McGrane’s role is to make sure political committees are properly reporting their finances, not that what political committees are saying about certain candidates is accurate in their voter guides.  

In Idaho, there are no official voter guides created by the Secretary of State’s Office, despite attempts to do so during the last legislative session. 

For more information about Idaho elections, visit voteidaho.gov.

Senate Bill 1273, which was brought to the Legislature by McGrane, would have required his office to mail a new informational voter guide to every household in the state 30 days before a primary and general election. It passed the Idaho Senate in a 13-22 vote, but the House State Affairs Committee never took up the bill after it was referred to the committee in late February, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported. 

To check if a voter guide or flier is official, voters ought to check that it is associated with a state or county website. 

“Our role is not to regulate what people say or the accuracy of what people say, but simply to say, if you’re spending money in political campaigns, transparency is required,” McGrane said.