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Getting to Good Governance

Tuesday, Nov 1, 2016

In her research, Prof. Abby Wood analyzes costs and benefits of campaign finance disclosure

- By Julie Riggott

Abby Wood’s travels around the world sparked an interest in rule of law and governance, putting her on a path to three advanced degrees and then a faculty position at USC Gould, where she has been assistant professor of law, political science, and public policy since 2014. Her current research gives a local focus to her global views, examining campaign finance disclosure and how we can improve government right here at home.

Abby Wood, whose current research gives a local focus to her global views, photographed in Culver City at City Hall.
The call to law came after travels through Central America and Mexico during her undergraduate studies in Spanish at Austin College. Wood observed and heard about pervasive corruption, mostly in the form of police bribery. It struck her, she says, that “a country that will turn a blind eye to police corruption is also quite likely to turn a blind eye to things like wrongful imprisonment or disappearances.”
 
And that’s when she decided to study law at Harvard and economic development at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, earning a JD and an MA in Law and Diplomacy in 2007. “People with law degrees understand the rules of the game. You have to understand the rules in order to ensure that government actors are not above them — that’s the rule of law,” she says. “My interest in government systems and overseeing government actors is very much about fighting corruption and government abuses.”
 
In the Philippines, Wood had another glimpse of how corruption leads to government failures. Wood watched the criminal trial of Joseph Estrada, a Philippine president who was ousted in a popular uprising and put under house arrest. She later contributed a chapter to a book about “Prosecuting Heads of State.” “I got a sense of how government officials can prey on the people they’re meant to be representing or protecting or helping,” she says.
 
 
 
Wood, who also earned a Ph.D. in political science at U.C. Berkeley, currently teaches Administrative Law, Money in Politics, and Analytical Methods for Lawyers at Gould. “I want my students to think critically about the law,” she says. “I want to know that when they leave this place, they are prepared to help make our government institutions better, either by working inside of government or bringing court challenges when government fails the people it should be protecting.”
 
INFORMATION MATTERS
In her latest research on campaign finance disclosure, Wood hopes to discover “general truths about good
governance and what we really need to make government more responsive to the people.”
 
“One of the key aspects of good governance is transparency, which is forcing information out of the government,” Wood says. “If you think information matters in democracy, then you also probably want to know who’s funding political candidates and ballot initiatives, and who’s running campaign ads. Campaign finance disclosure regulations force information to the public, which allows us to follow the money.”
 
The Supreme Court says there are various costs and benefits to campaign finance disclosure. Wood is not only
testing the costs and benefits the Court has mentioned; she is also searching for others.
 
“Economic theory would say if you force information out of the candidate about who’s funding them, then maybe some contributors will stop giving money. There’s a privacy cost,” Wood says. “Meanwhile, the Court says the
benefits of disclosure include providing information and helping to combat corruption.”
 
To analyze the costs of campaign finance disclosure, Wood and Douglas Spencer at the University of Connecticut School of Law compared states that made big changes in campaign finance disclosure with states that made none between the 2004 and 2008 election cycles. They asked the question: Are contributors more or less likely to drop out of the contributor pool in states that improved their disclosure? They discovered that the difference was negligible. “Contributors were dropping out about 2 percentage points more than you’d expect — meaning that the privacy costs of campaign finance disclosure are very small indeed,” she says.
 
Wood’s current research explores disclosure’s benefits. “An additional benefit the Court is not talking about yet
is that voters actually care about transparency in and of itself. They reward candidates who are disclosing and I
show in the lab that they will also reward candidates who disclose more information than they have to.”

ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITIES
 
Wood says that Gould is an ideal place to be a junior faculty member and scholar, as she is given plenty of
research support and that essential resource: time. Plus, the school’s reputation nationally means she has access
to exceptional opportunities. “As a Gould professor, my work is taken seriously,” she says, “and I get to be in
conversation with leading scholars and policymakers about it.”
 
For instance, she was invited to work with the Federal Bipartisan Campaign Finance Task Force alongside other
political scientists who research campaign finance. In theTask Force, she is immersed in a community of scholars,
as well as practitioners and lawyers. For the task force’s report, her focus is on disclosure.
 
“I think it’s pretty important stuff, particularly in an age when many political groups have decided to form as
501(c)4 organizations to take advantage of a part of the tax code that does not require donor disclosure,” Wood
says. “We are already unable to trace a lot of political spending. Disclosure will continue to be challenged in the
courts, and I’m hopeful that my work can help to inform the litigation.” 
 
Read more about Professor Wood's research in "Disclosure can encourage political speech," an opinion piece she co-wrote for The Hill with Michael Gilbert, a professor at Univ. of Virginia's law school.

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