Secretive political spending is on the rise in Wisconsin's elections. Outside groups spent a record $3.6 million on political advertising in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race—without disclosing the identities of their funders. This is part of a national trend. Independent spending in the 2010 federal elections was more than four times greater than it was in 2006—and more of this spending was done anonymously than ever before, largely due to the disclosure loopholes created by the Citizens United decision. Voters are now bracing for the most expensive and secretive election in American history as November 2012 approaches.
Voters everywhere are clamoring for more information about the secretive organizations that are increasingly dominating our political discourse. So it's baffling that Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Legislature is taking steps to give voters even less information about the role of money in politics.
Last week, the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted to approve legislation rolling back campaign finance disclosure rules approved by the state Government Accountability Board. In addition to blocking existing GAB regulations, the legislation also would handcuff the agency by prohibiting any future rulemaking requiring disclosure of corporate electioneering. These steps would make it harder for the public to see how special interest money is flowing into political advertising campaigns.
This secrecy has a real cost for voters. Disclosure encourages accountability. Studies show that anonymous spenders are more likely to run negative and misleading ads than groups that are required to disclose their funding sources.
By taking this step backward, Wisconsin is bucking national trends. States around the country are passing stronger disclosure laws to address the new corporate and union spending made possible by Citizens United. Wisconsin should not keep its voters in the dark by weakening, rather than strengthening, its disclosure laws.
Moreover, Wisconsin's legislature is out of step with even our conservative United States Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court struck down limits on corporate spending in Citizens United, it did so based on the belief that political spending should be paired with "effective disclosure" to educate the voting public. Transparency in political spending is necessary, the Court explained, because it "enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages." Wisconsin is going far beyond the Roberts Court by not only giving corporations, unions and other special interests a green light for unlimited political spending—but by ensuring that they can do so in absolute secrecy.
It is not too late for Wisconsin to turn away from this misguided course. Legislators should vote against this bill if it moves to the full Senate and Assembly. The Legislature should instead encourage the GAB to take stronger steps to ensure the disclosure of money in politics—rather than rolling back the state's limited disclosure rules.
Mark Ladov serves as counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law's Democracy Program.