Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2010

Forum: Open disclosure of cash required

By DONNA S. HORNBERGER
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---- — It is just plain wrong. Secret campaign cash should have no place in our American democracy. But now we are seeing huge sums of money from secret sources going into campaign advertising, much of it the negative advertising that poisons the airways.

Special interests are spending millions and millions of dollars in this election and it threatens to drown out the voices of individual voters. And because of changes in the law, there are no disclosure requirements — even foreign government corporations could be funding these secretly funded ads.

As indicated by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "if both sides unleash their campaign spending monies without restrictions, then I think mutually assured destruction is the most likely outcome." (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/oconnor-mildly-criticizes-courts-campaign-finance-decision/)

The League of Women Voters has been calling attention to secret money being spent on political advertising for months, but the U.S. Senate has refused to act to require disclosure, even after the House of Representatives passed a strong disclosure bill.

In the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the "Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements ..." Justice Kennedy further wrote that "disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

Now we are seeing the largest campaign expenditures in our history, even as organizations accept tens of thousands of dollars from both American and foreign corporations. Essentially, these organizations are functioning as political action committees but without having to follow the laws requiring disclosure of their donors. It should come as no surprise that they lobbied against the DISCLOSE Act in Congress, which would have stopped manipulation of elections by fly-by-night anonymous hit groups, and prevented the infusion of undercover stealth expenditures.

As indicated by Justice Kennedy, the present overwhelming blast of secretly funded campaign ads lacks the transparency that "enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

These activities are extremely detrimental to our democracy. Voters deserve to know who is paying for election advertising. The League of Women Voters calls on all candidates to disavow secret advertising and asks our local media outlets not to accept ads unless the names of the true donors are made public.

About the author: Donna S. Hornberger is president of the League of Women Voters Grand Traverse Area.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.