Campaign ethics 101

If you’re not sure how to be ethical in a Missouri election campaign, you can find out by watching a new, on-line tutorial posted by the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC), says MissouriNet.

The Ethics Commission has taken several steps in the last year to improve their online presence and provide more resources that both candidates and the public can utilize. MEC director Julie Allen says the online tutorial makes the rules clear.

The newest section of the tutorial deals with “Campaign Materials Identification Requirements.” As with the previously posted tutorials on campaign-finance reporting and lobbying, the tutorial features a friendly, although perhaps a bit sing-songy, voice who talks you through all of the definitions, requirements and exemptions–of which there are many–while helpfully displaying the forms to complete and the web pages where rules are spelled out.

For someone who hasn’t run for office before, the process of staying ethical in a Missouri election campaign comes across as quite daunting, replete with multiple deadlines, complicated forms and a maze of twists and turns, depending on which office you’re running for. I suspect that this complicated process is not unique to Missouri, and I’m sure that the need for these rules arises from the sorry history of unethical campaign behavior that has plagued our democracy from its earliest days.  Following along with the tutorials, I can see why campaigns often must devote one or more staffers to the job of complying with the ethics rules.

MEC’s tutorial offers a good step-by-step walkthrough–but the campaign-ethics process itself remains complicated and burdened by terminology that only a lawyer or lawmaker could love. One form that’s available in special situations, for example, is called an “Exemption Statement of Limited Activity.” In a section on the complaint process, our friendly trainer notes that complaints must be filed by “a natural person.” (As opposed, I guess, to a zombie or a robot.)

Bottom line: MEC’s on-line tutorial represents a well-intentioned and valiant attempt to help candidates stay on the high road.  I’ve long believed that most candidates know, in their hearts, when they’re being ethical and when they’re being dirty,  that the labyrinth of ethics  rules serves mostly to restate the obvious, and that it’s very hard to legislate morality. But, as legislatures have felt the need to set the rules down on paper, it helps a lot to have guidance. Kudos to MEC for the effort.