The Spokesman-Review


Editorial: The people must demand election fund transparency

Secrecy is awfully important to political groups battling to keep the names of big-bucks contributors under wraps. They zealously guard a system where chief political aides “resign” so they can lead “independent” groups that smear foes with anonymous free speech.

It’s a big joke, and everyone knows it. But it’s important to them. You have to wonder why.

To hear the defenders of secrecy tell it, they’re merely standing up for the First Amendment. But what they’re really after is the ability to land sucker punches and remain in the shadows. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we believe people should be able to spend all they want on elections, as long as they tell us who they are. But super-PACs and “nonprofit social service groups” provide a home for the chickens.

So millions of dollars pour into political efforts, and both sides study convoluted election rules for loopholes and technical violations. Meanwhile, a disgusted public sees the results for what they are: blatant advocacy for one candidate over another.

The latest victory for the chickens came on Tuesday, when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned a lower court ruling requiring organizations to reveal the funders of election-related TV ads. The case began when public interest groups sued the Federal Elections Commission over rules it wrote in 2007 that seemed to muddy the intent of a landmark congressional law (the McCain-Feingold Act) passed in 2002. A lower court judge agreed.

However, the Court of Appeals said it was Congress that was vague, and it kicked the case back to the lower court, with the instruction to ask the Federal Election Commission what it really meant. Good luck with that. The FEC is composed of three Republicans and three Democrats who block each others’ moves. They are appointed by the very people who benefit from anonymous donors.

The only way to end this stalemate is for the public to make disclosure and transparency a top priority. That hasn’t happened, so politicians are more beholden to their secret benefactors than the public at large.

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United case was not a victory for secrecy. We don’t have to live with it. The justices stated explicitly that the bulwark against unlimited political contributions was transparency. The DISCLOSE Act was an effort to bring that about in the realm of independent expenditures, but it was scuttled by the advocates of secrecy.

Disclosure would not violate free speech rights. It would, however, give citizens more insight into which pipers are calling the tunes. It’s ridiculous to think our representative democracy is strengthened by protecting anonymity. However, that argument is winning the day. That’s because the proponents value secrecy more than the public values transparency. The only way that will change is if the public fights back.

Tell your public servants that the election law distinctions they fight over are irrelevant to you. Tell them you want disclosure of campaign financiers, regardless of where the money flows. Tell them it’s a condition of employment. It’s the only way they’ll listen.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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