PD Editorial: Voters finally can learn who’s buying all those attack ads

For the first time in years, the U.S. Supreme Court acted to improve this country's campaign finance system rather than make it worse.

Ever since the court cleared the way in its disastrous Citizens United ruling for unions and corporations to spend unlimited sums on federal elections, little has been done to stop the flood of anonymous campaign cash.

This month, the court finally struck a blow for transparency. The justices refused to grant an emergency stay of a lower court ruling requiring the release of the names of some donors to nonprofit groups engaged in political advocacy. Donors who give more than $200 to independent campaigns to influence the outcome of the midterm elections will have to be named.

The decision came in a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington against the Federal Elections Commission. The citizens group argued that the agency should require Crossroads GPS to disclose donors to a $6 million campaign designed to defeat Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

The judge agreed, throwing out a regulation that she said “blatantly undercuts the congressional goal of fully disclosing the sources of money flowing into federal political campaigns, and thereby suppresses the benefits intended to accrue from disclosure.”

The decision will expose millions of dollars in dark money expenditures, letting voters know who is funding attack ads in the midterm elections. A report by Issue One, a government reform group, estimated that the top 15 dark money groups have spent more than $600 million since Citizens United opened the floodgates.

In writing the Citizens United ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed the naive hope that disclosure rules would provide the transparency necessary to hold donors and their beneficiaries accountable.

“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters,” he wrote. “Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests.”

That didn't happen. Corporations and wealthy individuals funneled their money to nonprofit corporations that ostensibly weren't political, but in practice were very political. Those groups in turn bought vicious, often untrue attack ads and funded other campaigns, all with no disclosure of where the money was coming from. Some groups and candidates also played fast and loose with rules that they operate independent of one another, maintaining only enough separation for legal deniability.

This has had untold unintended consequences, including shifting power from the parties to these unaccountable, formerly anonymous groups, further eroding democracy.

We can hope that a future Supreme Court will rethink the place of corporate and union money in U.S. elections. Until then, hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to be spent, drowning out real speech by real people.

The decision to refuse an emergency stay offers a brief glimpse of hope that for now, at least, people will be able to find out where that money is coming from. Transparency doesn't guarantee integrity in elections, but it helps.

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