Park City ballots cast before campaign bucks revealed, but does it matter?
November 7, 2017
Many Park City voters were not aware mayoral candidate Andy Beerman's campaign brought in nearly $48,000 in cash or donated services by the final days of the contest.
They did not know his competitor, Dana Williams, trailed Beerman's fundraising efforts by more than $16,000 by then.
They voted without a look at the mayoral candidates' list of contributors. They did not see the rosters of people who provided campaign funds to the four Park City Council candidates, either. And those voters also were unaware three of the people campaigning for either the mayor's office or a seat on the Park City Council — half the overall field — made errors in their arithmetic on campaign-finance forms required by City Hall.
Park City residents took advantage of the convenience of the vote-by-mail system, used for the first time this year in a City Hall election. By doing so, though, many voters did not have access to the campaign-finance reports before they made their selections and put the ballots into the mail. The financial rundowns can act as indicators of whether a candidate has the backing of the political establishment, business interests or rank-and-file Parkites.
The first campaign-finance report of the general election season was not due until Oct. 31. The Summit County Clerk's Office by then had already sent out the ballots, and upward of 1,000 voters had returned them a week before the Oct. 31 deadline for the financial reports. It was not known how many of those ballots were returned by voters in Park City.
Deadlines for the reports have not been adjusted to reflect the popularity of the vote-by-mail system. It was the second time in three months Park City voters sent in their ballots without knowledge of the financial reports, following a primary election in August in the mayoral contest. The same scenario of deadlines falling after the ballots were mailed kept many voters from having access to the financials of the three mayoral candidates who competed in the primary.
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Mayor Jack Thomas in August said the City Council should discuss and re-evaluate campaign-finance deadlines, possibly before he leaves office in early January. That discussion has not occurred, and it is unclear whether leaders in Park City will pursue a tightened schedule of disclosure deadlines. The chances of any movement before Thomas leaves office appear to be greatly reduced as the opportunities for the City Council to address the issue are dwindling before the final meeting of his administration, scheduled in December.
"It's hard to tell how much it matters because in all likelihood that's not information most voters take into account when they vote anyway. Most voters are fairly low information voters as it is," said James Curry, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.
Curry said voters do not spend significant time researching politics or campaigns. On the local-government level, voters make decisions on a "cursory following of what's going on, and they cast their votes based on that information," he said. Curry said party affiliation is typically the No. 1 consideration of voters. Park City holds nonpartisan elections, however.
"While who candidates are raising money from should be important, and I think most voters would say so in the abstract, what we know is that most voters don't dig very deeply when they're making voting decisions anyway. So, in that sense, there's some question about how much of an impact that'd have on people's decision," he said about access to the financial reports.
Curry said there will always be a lag between a candidate receiving a contribution and it being reported. It would be difficult, as an example, to update the lists on a daily basis, particularly in the final weeks of a contest since local-level campaigns do not employ the staffs for that sort of task, he said. Potentially, Curry said, a deadline could be instituted coinciding with an election official mailing the ballots to voters. He said a deadline like that is "the most ideal thing I can think of."
"It's concerning in that this is information that should be important for us to know," he said. "The difficulty . . . is how do you try to correct this."