WASHINGTON – A high-powered elections lawyer is not an expense that many third-party state organizations can afford.
But Maryland Libertarian Party Chairman Roy J. Meyers III could have used one this year to help figure out how to comply with new federal regulations on state parties under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — better known as McCain-Feingold.
“I’ve read various guides on the Internet that ostensibly simplify how a state or local central committee has to comply with McCain-Feingold,” said Meyers. “But these are still pages and pages of gobbledy-gook.”
That “gobbledy-gook” got a little clearer Thursday when the Federal Election Commission — after months of back-and-forth correspondence — officially recognized the Maryland Libertarian party as a state committee.
It is one of several steps required by the new law, but it is hardly the end of the confusion for Meyers, who called the whole drawn-out process “just another bureaucratic hassle.”
He is not alone. Other aspects of the law — like requirements to segregate state and federal funds and strictures on what kinds of activities can be paid for by the separate funds — have proved frustrating for officials in many state parties, mainstream and otherwise.
The Maryland Democratic Party assigned a paid staffer to the role of full-time comptroller after McCain-Feingold was passed, to oversee expenditures and receipts and make sure the party did not violate the law.
“We also had two staffers attend about half a dozen (compliance) training sessions with Democratic elections lawyers, some of which lasted all day long,” said Josh White, the party’s executive director.
White said that, as executive director, he has also “had to deal with lawyers on a day-to-day basis” to make sure that rules were being followed.
But one expert said that third-parties would inevitably be at a greater disadvantage because they cannot afford to pay for accountants or lawyers who could help them navigate the bureaucratic hurdles.
“Lawyers must love this new law because I have to imagine their billable hours have gone through the roof,” said Aron Pilhofer of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity.
“The textured nature of these rules, the layers of them — I’m sure if you asked any party committee they’d tell you that the cost to comply with them is extraordinary,” Pilhofer said.
A recent study by the center said that state parties spent a total of $12.3 million on professional services, including accounting and law advice, in the two years before McCain-Feingold took effect. That jumped to $9.2 million in 2003 alone, the year after the law took effect, which the report attributed directly to the new law.
David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, said that “campaign reform laws so far have made life difficult for third parties, even if that has not been their principle intent.”
Meyers said that McCain-Feingold has forced his party to “spend a great deal of time and energy reading and learning the law and procedures — opening new bank accounts, preparing reports and then wasting more time and energy fighting the paper tiger when things go wrong.”
Meyers, whose is not paid as chairman of the state Libertarian Party, has had to make do without legal advice. And he has not had much fun doing it.
“I remember the first session I did researching the implications of McCain-Feingold for our party . . . I wound up with sore eyes, a headache and missing three hours of my life,” he said. “And still didn’t have any definitive answers or complete understanding.”
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