Friday’s editorial suggests that increased disclosure requirements are the key to keeping elections clean in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of more corporate political ads.
Indulge us, for a moment, in a bout of hyperbolic political fiction and pretend the evil Carolina OmegaDump Inc. wants to build a giant landfill for used diapers and fish carcasses a block off the beach.
The valiant Myrtle Beach City Council unites in opposition, and so, emboldened by last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate spending in elections, Carolina OmegaDump unloads millions of dollars in advertisements accusing the council members of blocking dozens of new jobs in “long-term seafood storage.” One by one, the Carolina OmegaDump ads demand the council members' ouster as the 2011 election nears.
Though outlandish, our scenario
illustrates what we believe to be the most realistic outcome of “Citizens
United v. Federal Election Commission” – a slew of new campaign ads will soon
be annoying voters, but as long as they’re clearly labeled, not influencing
them unduly. To listen to the liberals decrying the decision as “terrifying,”
however, our fictional
In its decision, the high court overturned as unconstitutional the campaign-reform laws that previously prevented corporations from buying political advertisements specifically for or against a candidate (though the companies are still prevented from donating directly to candidates). Most importantly, the Supreme Court upheld disclosure requirements that require any political ad to clearly identify its sponsor. These laws draw the line between legitimate attempts at persuasion (by corporations or any other interest groups) and outright deception by holding the ad’s authors responsible for their words.
To cite an example from local reality, inscrutably named groups like “Good Government for Myrtle Beach” spent more than $250,000 in the last election on numerous TV spots, mailers and billboards – some positive, and some infuriatingly negative – favoring the incumbent Council members and attacking former Mayor Mark McBride. Did those ads influence the election? It's tough to say – three of the four incumbents won re-election, but all by very close margins.
But not until after the election did voters find out that the ads were bought by a consortium of local hoteliers and business owners. That revelation may not have been a major surprise, but we believe that if corporations have a right to try to influence an election – the definitive element of representative democracy – the electorate likewise has a right to know who's doing the persuading. The ads themselves aren't the problem; the secrecy is.
What's to be done? Congress is considering a number of ideas, such as forbidding companies from deducting political ads as business expenses from their tax returns or requiring a CEO (i.e., a real person) to give a similar “I'm so-and-so and I approve this message” statement at the end of ads. We'd encourage them to explore heightened disclosure requirements for non-public companies that participate in political advertising (targeting the all-but-anonymous LLCs that litter campaign-disclosure forms) and to shorten the reporting periods to reflect the ease of disclosure in the Internet age. Finally, we'd encourage South Carolina to join the 20 other states that, with the U.S. Supreme Court's renewed blessing, still ban direct corporate cash contributions to candidates.