Recent court decisions are providing a virtual template for increasing transparency in elections. If the courts say money is speech, and groups can make unlimited political contributions, these opinions support rules for election media to reveal the mouth behind the money.
The 9th Circuit Court recently ruled in FAMILY PAC v. MCKENNA that a Washington State law banning political committees from accepting -from any one person- contributions exceeding $5,000 within 21 days of a general election is an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The ruling also rejected arguments that disclosing the names and occupations of donors who gave more than $25 would “chill donations to an organization by exposing donors to retaliation.” There is a straight line from this ruling to the infamous Citizens United case where contribution restrictions were repealed but transparency was preserved.
Here are some quotes from the Family PAC ruling offering a nice perspective on transparency within elections:
“Given the complexity of the issues and the unwillingness of much of the electorate to independently study the propriety of individual ballot measures, we think being able to evaluate who is doing the talking is of great importance.”
Disclosure also gives voters insight into the actual policy ramifications of a ballot measure. “Knowing which interested parties back or oppose a ballot measure is critical, especially when one considers that ballot-measure language is typically confusing, and the longterm policy ramifications of the ballot measure are often unknown.”
“At least by knowing who backs or opposes a given initiative, voters will have a pretty good idea of who stands to benefit from the legislation.” In addition, “mandating disclosure of the financiers of a ballot initiative may prevent ‘the wolf from masquerading in sheep’s clothing. (observing that the names groups give themselves for disclosure purposes are frequently ambiguous or misleading).
There are new laws in Washington State that echo the sentiments of the ruling above. The law now requires the name of the sponsor of an election ad appear on the media. This is great because I want to know who the assholes are that send all the negative advertising and bogus claims to my mailbox.
In an independent expenditure* or electioneering communication on television or other medium that includes a visual image, the following statement must either be clearly spoken, or appear in print and be visible for at least four seconds: "No candidate authorized this ad. Paid for by (name, city, state)."
If the advertisement or communication is undertaken by a non-individual other than a party organization, then the following notation must also be included: "Top Five Contributors" followed by a listing of the names of the five persons or entities making the largest contributions in excess of seven hundred dollars.
Did you catch – “non-individual”? The law seeks to peel back an ambiguous group name to point towards actual living breathing people. Participating in democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. We need more names and less front groups. Simple statutes can tie actual names to the big money advertising that dominates politics. Let's lift the rock and shine a light on these buggers.
*Ads that are made on behalf of a campaign where the candidate has no knowledge of the effort.