Subverting the Public’s Right to Know

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

April 7, 2004

The money special interest groups pour into state election campaigns now resembles an iceberg – the tip that is visible is shrinking and the submerged mass that cannot be seen is growing ever larger. In fact, in 2002 more electioneering activity by special interests escaped detection by Wisconsin’s campaign finance disclosure system than was accounted for publicly.

If you’re looking for a canary in the coal mine, look no further than one of the state’s most powerful special interest groups – business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. WMC disclosed a grand total of $450 in election-related giving and spending in an election year that featured a $23 million race for governor.

WMC and other special interest groups allied with both major state political parties are evading disclosure by relying on anonymous and unlimited "soft money" donations to pay for so-called "issue ads" supporting candidates they like and attacking ones they don’t. In doing so, they've blown a gaping hole in political sunshine laws designed to ensure an informed electorate.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in special interest donations for issue ads went unaccounted for in campaign disclosure reports for 2002. The $4 million compares to just over $2.6 million in reported spending to support or oppose candidates financed by groups' registered political action committees. This marks the first time that unregulated issue ads paid for with unrestricted soft money clearly outnumbered campaign ads paid for with PAC money that is subject to disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits.

Special interests don’t need issue ads and the soft money loophole to participate in election campaigns. They can do that with money given and spent in full public view. They need soft money and issue ads to give anonymously and spend unaccountably. They need this loophole to sneak money into the political process that would be illegal under Wisconsin law if disclosed.

Prominent Republicans at the Capitol and their special interest backers claim that banning soft money at the state level and requiring full disclosure of phony issue ads is a partisan ruse designed to benefit Democrats and hurt Republicans because undisclosed issue ads are a Republican campaign tool while registered political committees are a Democratic bastion. The facts tell a very different story.

In truth, groups connected to both major parties are heavily involved in raising undisclosed funds for electioneering purposes and organizations favoring state Democrats raised considerably more unreported soft money to pay for issue ads in 2002 than Republican supporters did.

Among registered committees that publicly disclose their activity, the Republican Party of Wisconsin contributed $704,159 to candidates for state office in 2002, more than twice as much as the $309,130 in reported contributions by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The obsession with partisan advantage causes lawmakers to lose sight of the clear public interest in disclosure and the fact that Wisconsin has a campaign disclosure emergency on its hands. It’s a bipartisan problem. Both sides had a hand in creating the crisis, and both sides are making it worse by the day.

By evading disclosure, special interest groups show an utter disregard for voters' fundamental right to know who is trying to buy elections. Unfortunately legislative leaders not only are tolerating this deceit but are actively working to promote it.

The holes in Wisconsin’s campaign finance disclosure system have not been plugged despite last December’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a federal soft money ban and full disclosure of issue ads. A 1999 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision also held that the state may regulate issue ads and invited either the Legislature or state Elections Board to do so.

The Elections Board plans to act on a rule requiring full disclosure next month. Legislative leaders and their special interest sponsors are indignant. They scream that disclosure of soft money and issue ads amounts to an infringement on free speech and a ban on interest group participation in election campaigns.

You can believe the people in charge at the Capitol or you can believe the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last December that it is "simply wrong" to characterize a soft money ban and issue ad disclosure as a "complete ban on expression."

The nation’s highest court saw this reform for what it is. It’s about the public’s right to know. It’s about preventing political corruption. It’s about protecting democracy.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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