Swimming against the tide of increasing public secrecy, Washington state lawmakers are on the verge of passing a law that would make it more difficult for financiers of campaign hit pieces to remain anonymous.
The need for the change was highlighted when the Public Disclosure Commission wrangled with a group called the Voters Education Committee over ads that targeted Democratic attorney general candidate Deborah Senn in last fall’s primary.
The ads focused on Senn’s tenure as insurance commissioner and asked, “Who is Deborah Senn looking out for?” The Voters Education Committee argued implausibly that the ads were issue-oriented and thus not subject to reporting requirements. Plus, the committee claimed that since the ads didn’t support or oppose any candidate they should not have triggered state reporting requirements.
But by making Senn the issue, the ads were clearly opposing her run for office. Plus, the ads didn’t discuss any issues that an attorney general might face.
Eventually, the PDC persuaded to the committee to disclose that $1.5 million in ad funding came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, based in Washington, D.C. However, Senn was rebuffed in her attempts to learn the names of individual donors. The case is still in court, with the Voters Education Committee still clinging to the “issue ad” defense.
Critics of the current legislation – HB 1144 and SB 5034 – say that the state shouldn’t be micromanaging the content of campaigns, but political operatives have demonstrated repeatedly that they cannot be trusted to follow the spirit of election laws. Absent a new law, the kind of anonymous attacks on Senn could very well be aimed at other candidates of any party the next time. And if the ads truly were issue-oriented, the PDC would not have stepped in.
If financiers of attack ads don’t want their names publicized, they need only stay away from such surreptitious activities. If they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, they shouldn’t mind when the public matches a name to a contribution.
Voters should know who is criticizing candidates in ads, especially near the end of races. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision bolsters states trying to close loopholes in campaign disclosure laws.
The bills that have passed the state House and Senate would require disclosure for any person or group paying $5,000 or more for an issue ad in the final 60 days of a campaign. Such a law would render moot the legal battles over whether a piece is issue-oriented.
This legislation would not dim the prospects of open public discourse on campaign issues. It would merely shine a light on those who want to speak from the shadows.