Voters Need to Know Who Is Trying to Influence Their Opinions
Campaign finance disclosure requirements allow Americans to interpret ads they see
June 21, 2012
If the American people are going to be forced to watch our elections be bought, we should at least be given the courtesy of knowing who's doing the buying.
The surge in independent spending facilitated by the U.S. Supreme Court's outrageous Citizens United v. FEC decision is going overwhelmingly for negative attack ads (e.g., more than 80 percent of spending by the Mitt Romney-affiliated Restore Our Future; all of the funding by the Barack Obama-affiliated Priorities USA). Everyone hates attack ads, but independent groups use them because they work. Candidates are deterred somewhat from using negative ads because voters can hold them accountable. But independent groups can't be held accountable—they have innocuous names, no one knows who they are, and they don't care about their public reputations. Victims of attack ads aired by independent groups should at least be able to fight back by highlighting the corporations or persons funding those ads—but they can do that only with a robust disclosure system.
Why should voters care who (or what, in the case of corporations) is funding attack ads or campaigns? Because knowing the financial backers helps voters interpret the information they are receiving. Even for scientific papers, it's important to know who's funding them, because funding affects outcomes. The case is far stronger for campaign ads; campaign ads rely primarily on emotional appeals—attempts to manipulate—rather than the provision of information. Knowing who's pulling on your heartstrings has a big impact on how you respond to the emotional appeal.
The important American tradition of protecting anonymous speech is primarily designed to protect the rights of the vulnerable and powerless. There is no reason for this right to extend to for-profit corporations' efforts to buy elections; when it comes to the super-rich spending vast sums to influence elections, the public interest in knowing who's trying to do the influencing vastly outweighs whatever claim the super-wealthy may make to anonymity.
The way forward is more disclosure: Passage of the DISCLOSE Act, mandating disclosure of all independent campaign donors; requirements for publicly traded corporations to reveal their campaign spending; and a duty for government contractors to disclose their campaign spending, to prevent contracting abuses. None of this, of course, is a substitute for ending the buying of elections, including via a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and giving Congress and the states the ability to regulate campaign spending.