The public’s right to know who is involved in this country’s election and public policy processes is a bedrock ideal of our democracy. Yet, some folks just don’t seem to get that. Instead of focusing on the principle involved, they want to sue or demonize public officials.
Two recent cases in point: the Feb. 27, ruling on Independence Institute v FEC by the U.S. Supreme Court turned back yet another attack on disclosure, and the resignation of FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel in frustration over the commission’s inability to do...anything.
With Independence Institute v FEC, the Court ruled that groups that run candidate-focused advertising just prior to elections must disclose who sponsors those ads. Since these disclosure requirements apply only to groups that spend more than $10,000 on advertising, it’s not onerous to mom-and-pop outfits who are supporting their local or state candidate. Pretty simple, right?
The history of such disclosure dates back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 landmark ruling in Buckley v Valeo, in which the Court balanced the public’s right to know who is involved in elections with an individual’s right to free speech and freedom of association. The Court found that when it came to politics and campaign finances — which have a direct bearing on the public policies decided by lawmakers and paid for by taxpayers — knowing who supports candidates is important because it helps voters evaluate candidates, helps deter corruption “and the appearance of it,” and helps detect violations of laws. The Court upheld these basic principles in McConnell v FEC in 2003 and again in Citizens United v FEC in 2010.
Disclosure helps provide transparency in our elections and public policy processes and ultimately supports a more healthy democracy.
So, when FEC Commissioner Ravel, a longtime and ardent advocate for disclosure and transparency, stepped down recently and expressed her frustration with the election commission’s partisan gridlock, she became a target for those who see disclosure as an ill that weighs down our democracy. The Wall Street Journal in a Feb. 26 editorial accused Ravel of the “weaponizing of campaign-finance law,” despite the long and constitutionally tested reasoning behind such laws.
Instead of demonizing disclosure as an ill on our democracy, we should be celebrating it. It is one of the things that makes our democracy so resilient and respected. The Journal’s editorial brought to mind a personal conversation we had with an elected leader from Algeria who was visiting our country to understand more fully how our democracy works. When offered assistance with educating lawmakers in his country, he cast a serious smile and said, “No, thank you. People who do what you do in my country get shot.”
Disclosure is a powerful weapon. Let’s protect it and use it wisely.
Edwin Bender is the executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Follow him at FollowTheMoney.org.