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Vestal: Judge a champion of campaign transparency

It’s too bad that the time most ripe for optimism and enthusiasm regarding democracy and citizenship – elections – is so persistently darkened by cynicism.

It’s too bad, but not surprising or unfounded. One of the chief failures of our public life is the failure of frankness, and it’s widespread, and it causes an entirely reasonable loss of faith in the whole enterprise.

That’s why the 19 pages written by Judge Michael Wetherell and filed in a Boise courtroom this week are such an invigorating tonic. It’s not because he ordered a stubbornly resistant political committee to reveal its donors, as required by Idaho law. In doing that, Wetherell was interpreting the law. But in the way he did it – in his clear, cogent defense of the rights of citizens – Wetherell produced an eloquent reminder that there is reason to be more than merely cynical about elections.

“Nothing is more critical to the existence of real democracy and the preservation of the legal framework of the Republic than full, honest information provided to voters who may do with that information what they will,” Wetherell wrote in his decision.

Nothing is more critical than full, honest information. What a thrillingly corny thing to say, in this age of denial and obfuscation. It’s so much better – as a foundation for a democracy – than the argument advanced by the attorney for the group that lost: “There is no public interest in prying into private corporate business.” 

I’m not so naive as to think that we always, or even usually, get honest, full information. Our sources of information – from the media to the campaigns, from the debates to polling models – are riddled with flaws and limitations. We have become such experts at identifying them that we often fail to recognize that we live in an age of incredible richness and variety of information; a curious voter today has access to so much more than he or she did a few decades ago – back when campaign disclosure laws were passed in Congress and in state legislatures in the wake of Watergate.

Possibly the biggest and most legitimate source of cynicism about elections stems from the contributions of third-party organizations that hide, Oz-like, behind a facade. The nastiest campaign nonsense reliably comes from these groups, who name themselves hilariously: Citizens for Sunshine, Voters for Puppies, Parents for Education.

Wetherell’s ruling concerned Education Voters of Idaho, a group that formed as a nonprofit “social welfare organization” before raising $200,000 to buy TV ads in favor of Tom Luna’s magic laptops. Education Voters has refused to identify these education voters; Idaho’s secretary of state sued them and won in court Monday. The case is bound for the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, as you consider voting or elections or candidates or the hopeless, crushing machine of politics, tune into Wetherell and see if he can’t infect you with a bit of hope and positivity for the process that we’re in the midst of now, and for whom it is being done, and for whose ends it is supposed to work, however rarely it actually turns out that way.

Here’s a portion of his ruling:

“Understanding who is attempting to influence their decision is part of a voter’s analysis of whether he or she agrees with the reasons and goals of those who are attempting to lobby them. Knowledge of who backs or opposes a ballot measure can motivate a voter to look more deeply into the merits of their arguments and try to discern what those who lobby the voters hope to gain or fear to lose.

“If actions speak louder than words, then the expenditure of resources – money and time – speaks more loudly still. No one doubts that there are voters who are uninterested in those who fund drives to oppose or support candidates or ballot measures but many voters do care.

“The voters have a right to the most full, most accurate information they can get in spite of the many obstacles placed in their way by those who would prefer to hide behind catchy, vague names. Voters are entitled to know who is standing behind the curtain. Idaho voters passed the Sunshine Initiative to give themselves the right to see who is trying to influence their vote and they authorized the Secretary of State to protect the rights of all Idaho citizens. Nothing has been shown which overrides the strong, substantial interest of the citizens of Idaho in knowing who is seeking to influence them as they exercise their right to vote.”

Pry away, Idaho, pry away. When corporations wade into elections, their private business becomes the public’s.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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