“Why can’t you Democrats and Republicans get along?” the woman asked me. “All of this fighting is tearing our country apart.”
When I asked her what it was that disturbed her most the answer was loud and clear - “Take those nasty campaign ads off TV and get them out of my mail box.”
What people remember most about the election of 2010 is the very negative nature of ads - most of which were written and paid for by independent groups.
Finding out who pays for these negative ads is something the Government Accountability Board (GAB) wants to make public. The state agency that regulates elections, campaigns and lobbying spent nearly two years crafting independent group disclosure rules requiring them to register with the state and limiting donations to $10,000.
In August, various independent groups filed suit to have the Wisconsin Supreme Court block the new disclosure rules. In a rare action, the State Supreme Court agreed to take up lawsuits filed by these groups against the Government Accountability Board instead of sending it through the lower courts.
This action paves the way for formal arguments against the GAB’s efforts to require disclosure of money flowing into independent groups that use the money to influence elections.
The influence of independent groups was a topic of discussion last week at the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Sparta Chamber of Commerce. A local man concerned about all the money spent in my race asked me to explain.
I told the group I am forbidden by law from coordinating or communicating with any independent group. I cannot tell them what to say, nor can I stop them from what they are doing.
Estimates are that approximately one million dollars was spent in each of the four top State Senate races. The campaigns raised and spent less than 20% of that money - or about $200,000. This amount does not come close to the money spent by independent groups.
These groups with positive sounding names like “Americans for Prosperity” or “All Children Matter” spend millions in elections but are not required to disclose their donors or follow the rules candidates must follow.
Contributions from individuals to a State Senate candidate are limited to no more than $1,000 in a four year period. And the candidate who receives the donation must disclose who donates.
Political action committees are also limited to a $1,000 donation over a four year period. Candidates cannot accept more than about $15,000 in total from political action committees and can accept only a little less than $7,000 from a political party.
While Wisconsin law does not require independent groups to report who contributes to them nor limits who donates how much to them, state law does forbid donations from corporations and has since Bob La Follette’s work in 1912.
But the recent Federal Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision opened the doors for corporations to contribute to independent groups. This tipped the scale away from candidates and towards independent groups in controlling the airways and the message in the campaigns. It has also added to the negative nature of campaigns.
And from a candidate’s perspective that is a problem. Candidates have certain issues they want to talk about in a campaign but when they only control 20% of what is being spent for or against them, often their message is not the one the voters hear.
This presents a problem from the voter’s perspective. We want to know who is saying what and why. All too often the message is a distortion of facts or complete fiction and is always politically motivated.
In March, the State Supreme Court will hear arguments on the lawsuits filed by independent groups against the Government Accountability Board. The legal issue to be debated is the first amendment - the right of free speech. Does money equal free speech? Did the framers of our constitution ever imagine cash could control the airways and the minds of many?
It is essential to our democracy that we have the right to know who is behind the message about any candidate. Then as well informed, watchful citizens we can exercise our right to vote.