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We have come through another election season, and if you had any doubt about the wisdom of requiring people to reveal who funds political ads, we hope those doubts were erased by the surfeit of ads from groups that you have never heard of.

How does it break down? The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board released a list last week of who contributed what. Overall, independent groups spent $9.9 million on the fall election. There were $1.7 million in expenditures from labor union political action committees, $2 million from corporation PACs, $3.8 million from noncorporate and nonlabor PACs, and $2.5 million from others. 

It’s easy to look at the list of organizations and figure out who the NRA Political Victory Fund is, as well as the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, but what about the Fond du Lac PAC or the Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin? Without knowing who is paying, it becomes difficult or impossible to understand whether an ad is simply a repackaged partisan screed or is stating something closer to fact.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in the case known as Citizens United, corporations and unions now face no restrictions on spending from their own funds. We supported the Citizens United decision because we have not seen any set of campaign laws effectively govern campaign spending. What we do insist on, and what we challenge the next Legislature to do, is ensure that everyone who donates money to one of these almost anonymous groups is known. 

That has been an issue for some people. Following Citizens United, the state’s Government Accountability Board adopted a rule requiring organizations to reveal the sources of their funds. Both liberal and conservative groups challenged that idea, some state Supreme Court justices enjoined the state from enforcing the rule and that is where the matter still sits. The Legislature could settle this by passing a law requiring disclosure.

Anonymity has no place in political campaigns. Like anyone standing up in a public square, people making comments through political ads should be identifiable. Without this knowledge, political campaigns will come to resemble the worst of the Internet, where unknown people make loose statements of questionable truth or complete malignance. There will be no way to assess even the basic veracity of campaign assertions, and the culmination of this will not be a healthy democracy. The truth — or what we can be discerned of it — will be buried in a haystack of charges and countercharges, and the public will tune out, surrendering its government to the very special interests which it voted against just a few weeks ago.

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