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Campaign finance reform kills dark money bot – for now

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Arizona’s dark money bot, the Twitter account set up by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting to blast out notices when dark money groups spend in political campaigns, has sent out its last tweet – for now, at least.

That’s not because dark money is going away in Arizona. It’s because lawmakers this year repealed the requirement that dark money groups file real-time campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State’s Office disclosing their spending.

The account, @azdarkmoneybot, was heralded by Arizona political observers, reporters and railbirds as a great tool for tracking the electioneering activities of outside groups.

The bot, which was designed by Evan Wyloge (a former Arizona Capitol Times reporter) and Justin Price, scanned the Secretary of State Office’s internal email notifications announcing new expenditure reports by dark money groups, and imported the information from those reports into a database.

Every time the database was updated, the bot automatically formulated a tweet with the committee’s name, the amount it spent, whether it was for or against a candidate, the candidate’s name, the district and the date, along with a link to the actual report.

But those reports are no longer required under SB1516, which was drafted by the Secretary of State’s Office and approved by lawmakers along mostly party lines this year. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill and it went into effect following the November election.

The bill completely re-wrote Arizona’s election laws and removed several provisions aimed at fostering campaign transparency.

In her 2014 campaign to become secretary of State, Michele Reagan promised to bring transparency to dark money. But once elected to the Seventh Floor of the Executive Tower, Reagan drafted and helped push SB1516 through the Legislature.

Information on dark money spending will now only be reported to her office quarterly and before the primary and general elections, instead of in real-time.

Rather than have the bot send hundreds of tweets at a time six days per year, Wyloge decided to retire the account.

“(I)f only there was something that could have been done. Goodbye cruel world. Beep boop,” Wyloge tweeted from the account.

But the bot may be revived before 2018.

The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission still requires independent expenditure groups to file real-time reports disclosing spending, though the reports are hand-written and unreadable for the bot in their current format.

Tom Collins, Clean Elections executive director, said that while SB1516 deleted the requirement that dark money groups provide trigger reports to the Secretary of State’s Office, lawmakers didn’t, and cant, delete the voter-approved requirement that outside groups – both with disclosed and undisclosed donors – must notify Clean Elections of their campaign spending in real-time.

Clean Elections is currently collecting those reports, but is doing so on a paper PDF form, after the Secretary of State’s Office abruptly removed the old form from its website during this election cycle.

Collins said he could possibly put the reports into a format that the bot could automatically scrape and tweet before 2018.

But Wyloge cautioned that it’s not quite that simple.

First of all, he would have to retool the entire bot to scrape information from Clean Elections instead of the Secretary of State’s Office. Secondly, he can’t set up a new bot until those forms actually exist in a usable format.

Collins noted that the dark money bot could become obsolete anyway under Reagan’s promised new campaign finance website, SeeTheMoney.az.com.

Reagan had promised the site would be up and running before the 2016 election, and would revolutionize how voters read and interact with campaign finance data. But the site wasn’t ready before the November election, Reagan said, and she didn’t want to rush it. Reagan said the site would be up and running before the next election cycle, possibly this summer.

Collins said he would be surprised if Reagan’s site didn’t include information from Clean Elections.

“If the secretary of State is true to her representations about the See the Money program, I would be shocked if she did not include the only time-sensitive independent expenditure reports for state and legislative races, reports which happen to have been specifically authorized by voters in the Clean Elections Act,” Collins said.

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