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Our view: Information works

Once again, an election cycle has left such a bad taste in so many mouths that gargling with disinfectant threatens to become a national November ritual.

In Washington state, a particularly unpleasant aspect of the season was the avalanche of cash, not to mention vitriol, that descended on races for the state’s normally staid Supreme Court contests.

In reaction mainly to that phenomenon, the state Public Disclosure Commission is taking a close look at ways to curb so-called independent contributions. On the agenda for its November meeting is a question about whether to propose legislation to control political donations that go to organizations that operate separately from, but in support of, specific candidates.

Putting a limit on the amount of money citizens can give to such organizations is one way to alleviate any worries that elective offices can be bought by heavily financed interests. But it isn’t the best one.

The influence of money on democracy is not a new concern, but it was especially unseemly this year when the state’s building industry shoveled hundreds of thousands of dollars into two targeted Supreme Court contests.

It needs to be noted that the two Supreme Court candidates favored by the builders lost to the sitting justices they hoped to depose. Despite the fears of putting a price tag on justice, incumbency trumped special-interest bankrolls.

So before the PDC encourages legislation that will certainly be attacked as a restriction on political speech, possibly even a First Amendment encroachment, the members should take a close look at whether the perceived threat is as great as generally portrayed.

Meanwhile, there is a better way to rein in financial horsepower, one that also falls squarely within the commission’s domain. The alternative remedy is to put increased emphasis not on prohibiting campaign giving but on making it clearer who’s behind it and who’s benefiting from it – especially when dollars make one or more stops between the original giver and the ultimate recipient.

In a way, the outcome of the 2006 Supreme Court voting might be offered as evidence that disclosure works.

Customarily, voters know little about the beliefs and attitudes of judicial candidates who make it a point of honor to keep that information secret. But when the Builders Industry Association of Washington invested a bundle on behalf of court hopefuls John Groen and Stephen Johnson, it was evident that the group knew something about those candidates and their views regarding land use and development.

Looking at it that way, the voters were consistent. They not only rejected Groen and Johnson, they also turned down Initiative 933, the property rights measure that, if successful, probably was headed to the Supreme Court Groen and Johnson wanted to join.

The impact achieved by campaign giving tends to be in the form of superficial ads and fliers that bombard the voting public. Ultimately, it’s the public’s responsibility to evaluate those messages and decide if they mean anything substantive. The PDC can’t force voters to be discerning, but it can work on maximizing the information available to those who are. That’s preferable to selectively shutting down certain forms of political expression.


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