That’s because groups known as public question committees don’t need to file campaign finance disclosures until October 9, or 30 days before the general election. In Vermont, mail-in ballots go out to all 440,000 active registered voters beginning this week, 45 days before the election.
The mismatch undermines efforts to provide greater transparency about money in politics. But Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said the 30-day requirement existed before voting by mail and was geared toward local ballot measures, not statewide ones.
“I don’t think the legislature was actually contemplating the fact that constitutional amendment questions would fall under this,” Condos said.
The gap is relatively small, just about 15 days, but plenty of voters fill out their ballots and return them right away. That means they’ll do so before the spending disclosures are filed.
State law requires any entity that spends $1,000 or more in an election cycle advocating a position on a public question to file two expenditure reports before Election Day: 30 days and 10 days prior. Another report is due two weeks after it.
Vermont lawmakers passed the measure in 2013 in the wake of Citizens’ United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations. That was long before the pandemic led lawmakers to implement mail-in voting, said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), the outgoing chair of the Government Operations Committee.
The issue hasn’t come up more recently because there hasn’t been a statewide public question since 2010, when 17-year-olds won the right to vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election.
“It should probably be changed to 50 or 60 days before the election so there is some understanding of who is spending money before people start voting,” White wrote in an email to Seven Days.
“If I was writing this law, I would have included contributions, but I didn't," he said.
The committee is supported by a Planned Parenthood political action committee called Vermont for Reproductive Liberty. The PAC transferred $372,000 to the ballot committee in late August because the group’s attorneys determined it was the most appropriate vehicle for its spending on Prop 5, explained Lucy Leriche, president of the new committee.
The ballot committee was established to separate its work from the PAC, which is able to directly support political candidates, she explained.
Donors to the PAC included $283,000 from the national Planned Parenthood Action Fund, $112,00 from the ACLU and $27,800 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based dark money group that spends heavily to support progressive political causes.
Leriche's ballot committee, meanwhile, won't file its spending disclosures until October 9. She said her group was only following the rules outlined in state law.
"I don't know if I would have written the rules this way," she said.
Organizations aligned with the Montpelier-based Vermont Right to Life Committee formed a PAC called Vermonters for Good Government to oppose the reproductive liberty amendment.
The PAC had raised $235,000 as of the end of August, including $100,000 from Burlington conservative super PAC funder Lenore Broughton, $50,000 from Republican donor and Stowe resident Carol Breuer, and $50,000 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.