Super PAC Shell Games Highlight Need for New Disclosure Rules
Over a month has passed since the polls closed on Election Day 2012. Since then, the final totals have been tallied, the results certified and new members of Congress have even made their first trip to Washington D.C. to begin freshman orientation.
Yet voters had to wait until Dec. 6 to see the donors behind a slew of campaign ads carefully crafted by several major SuperPACs. In order to exploit a loophole in the law, these groups waited until the last minute to bombard the airwaves with commercials and stuff mailboxes with flyers, according to the New York Times.
“A last-minute burst of below-the-radar cash has begun flooding into the national elections…,” reported the Times on Nov. 3. “But unlike the well-known outside groups that have dominated the airwaves until now, many of the new spenders did not formally exist a few weeks ago. They have generic-sounding names, rarely have Web sites and are exploiting a loophole that will keep their donors anonymous until long after the last votes are counted.”
That means voters went to the polls without knowing who bankrolled “Freedom Fund North America” a SuperPAC created just weeks before the election that dropped nearly $1 million into Senate races in North Dakota and Montana, according to the Times. Likewise, voters in Michigan had no idea who was behind the “Hardworking Americans Committee,” a SuperPAC that spent over $1 million in the final weeks of the election against incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Times reported.
Timely and adequate disclosure is essential if voters are to make informed decisions on Election Day. Laws designed to promote secrecy do a disservice to democracy while protecting special interest groups that would prefer not to leave footprints as they court influence among politicians. Disingenuous campaign tactics such as these only serve to further erode public faith in the democratic process.
Disclosure rules seek not to stifle political speech, but serve a crucial purpose in providing voters with information about candidates. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its per curiam opinion during the seminal 1976 campaign finance case ofBuckley v. Valeo:
“…disclosure requirements deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity. This exposure may discourage those who would use money for improper purposes either before or after the election. A public armed with information about a candidate’s most generous supporters is better able to detect any post-election special favors that may be given in return.”
The American Anti-Corruption Act, launched by United Republic’s Represent.us campaign, seeks to end the shell games played by special interest groups by mandating that anyone that spends $10,000 or more to campaign for or against any candidate file a disclosure report with the Federal Elections Commission within 24 hours. Free speech would be protected and encouraged, but the political sleight-of-hand that allows wealthy interest groups to obviate the law and subvert the democratic process would come to an end upon passage of the act. When ordinary citizens are required to sign their name and affix their address to donations of a few hundred dollars, it’s absurd to allow multi-million dollar donors to hide behind dummy corporations and innocuously named non-profits.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant for what ails our democracy. It’s time for ordinary citizens to reach out and pull back the curtains.