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‘We need to find a way to track and disclose these big donors,’ says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. (File photo)

Tracking large Md. campaign donors a difficult task

Maryland lacks an efficient way of tracking large political donors in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated aggregate limits, according to the head of Common Cause Maryland.

A state elections official said that changes in the law mean that the state no longer tracks donors who exceed $10,000, and it may be up to the public, news media and watchdog groups like Common Cause to track such contributors.

Maryland law once limited aggregate campaign contributions to $10,000 in any four-year election cycle. That limit was eliminated in April following the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Clearly we need to find a balance for where the Supreme Court has taken us regarding freedom of speech and money in politics,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “We need to find a way to track and disclose these big donors. “

Bevan-Dangel said that need became apparent over the summer when she assigned staff to use state campaign finance records to identify donors — individuals and corporations — that have taken advantage of the April court decision and donated more than $10,000 in the current election cycle.

The assignment turned out to be fraught with frustration and was ultimately not one that could be completed after nearly three months of work.

Bevan-Dangel said the two interns “slaved over this all summer and amazingly got only halfway through the list of donors.” Common Cause released a list that included 314 donors statewide that her organization said exceeded $10,000 each — including some money given to independent expenditure groups that are exempt from contribution limits so long as spending is not coordinated with a candidate. All told, she said, those donors gave $23.1 million.

“Clearly there is a lot of capacity to give,” Bevan-Dangel said.

In the McCutcheon case, the court struck down as unconstitutional a federal limit of $123,200 that an individual can donate to all candidates in an election cycle.

Aggregate limits “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities,” according to the high court’s majority ruling.

A week later, Maryland elections officials issued an advisory letter saying the state’s aggregate limits on donors would no longer be enforced as a result of the federal decision.

State law limiting donations to individual candidates to $4,000 remains in effect.

“That decision changes things overnight,” said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

DeMarinis said in the past it fell to him to identify and track donors who exceeded the limit.

“This was not an easy process when I did it in 2011,” DeMarinis said. “That was under a system that was virtually impossible to do it in. It’s labor-intensive. It was a difficult law to enforce. I was in the process of designing a system that would make that easier but when the (Supreme Court) decision came down, I put the brakes on it.”

DeMarinis said he understands the public interest in tracking larger donors but said doing so on his end falls outside of the legal mandates of his agency.

“I don’t have the ability to go outside my mission,” DeMarinis said. “My role is to enforce the law and to provide the reports and the data.”