The scandal involving possible election fraud in the 9th Congressional District has turned into a fight about campaign finance secrecy. Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill that would allow a new election because the bill includes a provision that would make campaign finance investigations by the elections board less transparent and would make campaign finance prosecutions harder to bring.
Campaign finance issues deserve more scrutiny, not less. The scandal in the 9th District is far from the only questionable election behavior in the state. Through our work with the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law, we have come across campaign contributions that should raise voters’ eyebrows.
North Carolina makes campaign contribution information available in a database on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website. In reviewing those records, we have found several contributions to district attorney candidates from candidates for sheriff and candidates for district court judge. We have also found contributions from district attorney candidates to candidates for sheriff.
These contributions are troubling. We certainly understand why a candidate for sheriff or judge might have strong feelings about who serves as district attorney — and vice versa. After all, prosecutors must work closely with sheriffs and judges. But it is precisely because these officials work closely together that campaign contributions might be a cause for concern. For example, prosecutors sometimes investigate shootings by police officers. If the sheriff has been contributing to the district attorney’s campaign, it might cause the public to distrust any investigation by the district attorney that exonerated the sheriff’s office.
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Donations between judicial and prosecutorial campaigns raise additional issues. Prosecutors and judges are supposed to be independent from one another. When judges donate to prosecutors’ campaigns, they do not look particularly independent. Those contributions violate the spirit of the separation of powers. Officials who have given money in support of an election in another branch of government do not seem likely to later act as a check on that other official.
Let us be clear: the candidates for sheriff, judge, and district attorney who have donated to each other’s campaigns have not broken any campaign finance rules. We are unaware of any state election laws that prohibit those contributions. Nor do the contributions appear to violate the ethical rules for judges or lawyers. (There is an ethical rule that prohibits judges from personally making campaign contributions to others running for office. However, the contributions in question came from committees to elect those judges, rather than the judges themselves.)
Although these contributions appear to be permissible under state election law, individual candidates should decline to accept them. Records of campaign contributions are made public, in part, so that voters can evaluate candidates based on the donations they receive. Our criminal justice system entrusts district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges with an enormous amount of power and responsibility. Therefore, the candidates for those offices should hold themselves to a higher standard than mere legality. These candidates are asking voters to trust their professional judgment; rejecting these sorts of contributions gives voters a reason to do so.
We never would have learned of these contributions if North Carolina did not make campaign contribution information readily available in the statewide database. Not all states are so transparent. The database is one tool that allows North Carolinians to make informed decisions and hold their elected officials accountable. Investigations by the elections board and campaign finance prosecutions are others. Voters should have more information about questionable campaign finance decisions, not less.
Carissa Byrne Hessick is the Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina and the director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Jennifer Cofer is a law student at the University of North Carolina and a Research Associate at the Prosecutors and Politics Project.