Friday, January 13, 2012

The Best Elections Money Can Buy

This column is only tangentially related to education, as it is about our electoral process. But elections have had dramatic consequences for public education in recent years, so I don’t consider it a stretch.

In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court allowed “super PACs” to spend unlimited amounts of money advertising for or against political candidates. The first heavy-duty use of this new tool was the advertising onslaught against Newt Gingrich in Iowa as soon as he became a front-runner in the polls. And the tool proved to be a very effective hammer: flattening him before the caucus.

I am writing not about Gingrich or about Romney’s PAC or about the substance or veracity of that deluge of advertising. We all knew this would happen — and it will keep happening.

What is unexpected and disheartening is that the timely disclosure of donors to these PACs has been stymied by exploitation of a loophole. The court had ruled that the transparency of full disclosure, which was obviously intended by legislation, would enable voters “to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” That is, once we knew who was paying for the ads, we could consider that source and judge them accordingly.

After all, the Federal Election Campaign Act requires “quarterly filers to make special reports just before primaries.” That will not help most absentee voters, who will have mailed in ballots before such filings, but at least voters can, with some effort and/or some good reporting, discover who is attempting to buy our elections and our elected officials. It’s not a perfect system, but disclosure could mitigate the evils of the unlimited spending allowed by Citizens United.

Unfortunately, the ever-inventive folks behind these PACs have found a way to prevent such timely disclosure. As Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics reported in the New York Times on Jan. 11, 2012, timely donor disclosure has not and will not be achieved. “As 2011 came to a close, many super PACs — including all of the candidate-specific ones — told the Federal Elections Commission that from now on they’d be filing monthly, rather than quarterly. Monthly filers aren’t required to make ‘pre-primary’ reports.” This means that “Romney may have essentially wrapped up the presidential nomination by the time we know who has bankrolled these outfits.”

So, the million-dollar donors can even be anonymous long enough to throw a critical mass of primary elections. If the ability of a very rich and powerful few to exert outsized influence on our elections does not frighten you, it should.

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