Dan Walters

Dan Walters: FPPC gains more power, but lacks a chairperson

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Whether it’s football, tiddlywinks, poker or politics, the rules of the game can play a big role in determining who wins.

Every election produces examples of that adage – of elections won or lost because of the rules governing voting procedures, setting the boundaries of legislative or congressional districts, limiting campaign contributions and/or expenditures, or prescribing how votes are to be tallied.

The 2000 presidential election, one might recall, hinged on conflict over “hanging chads” and other minute details of voting in Florida that was eventually settled by a divided U.S. Supreme Court.

Two years ago, California voters faced two very contentious ballot measures, one to raise taxes, the other to weaken the political clout of labor unions.

However, the issues themselves were overshadowed by a big blowup over $11 million that flowed into campaigns from an opaque string of front groups.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission vigorously pursued the sources of the money, but only some of the original donors were revealed. It levied fines against the groups it could identify.

The flap over the $11 million in clandestine contributions probably had more effect on the outcome of the two ballot measures than the money itself. The donors, whoever they might be, wound up on the losing ends of both.

Nevertheless, it gave rise to some supposedly corrective legislation, including Assembly Bill 800, which was signed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown, whose 1974 ballot measure created the Fair Political Practices Commission.

AB 800 does several things, but the most important may be to empower the FPPC to conduct audits prior to an election, rather than afterward, even if no reports have yet been filed.

Transparency is a worthy goal, but this is dangerous territory and needs a deft touch because it potentially allows one political faction to trigger an investigation of another during a campaign and affect the outcome, as did the flap over the $11 million in 2012. And it could happen as soon as this year because AB 800 takes effect on July 1.

In other words, the FPPC chairperson, who is appointed by the governor, could – wittingly or otherwise – intervene in an election for one side.

And who, one might wonder, would it be? Ann Ravel, the Brown-appointed chairwoman whose 2012 investigation impacted those two ballot measures, resigned last year to become a member of the Federal Election Commission, but Brown has yet to name a successor.

Leaving the position vacant in an election year, with a new law providing much-enhanced power over election rules and potential outcomes, seems rather odd. And Brown’s office isn’t providing any reasons for the delay.

“We’re certainly aware of the vacancy and candidates are being interviewed,” a Brown spokesman emailed.