Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week took a step to shed light on our elections. In a ruling that undermines “dark money” in politics, the court helped to provide transparency and clarity to election finances.
Justices declined to block a trial court ruling that requires some nonprofit groups to disclose the names of political donors. The decision, which overturned a temporary stay issued by Chief Justice John Roberts, allows groups to continue spending unlimited money on political ads, but now those groups must reveal who funded the ads.
The ruling is far from the extensive campaign finance reform that remains necessary. But it represents a move in the right direction for keeping elections in the hands of the populace and undermining the dark money that is a threat to our democracy. Free speech must remain inviolate, but such speech should not be allowed under a veil of secrecy that eliminates consequences or accountability.
“This is a real victory for transparency,” said Ellen Weintraub, vice chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission. “As a result, the American people will be better informed about who’s paying for the ads they’re seeing this election season.”
The case that prompted the ruling started six years ago when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (the city, not the state) filed a complaint with the FEC against Crossroads GPS, a politically active group. The election commission deadlocked in 2015 on whether to investigate Crossroads for keeping its donors secret, and CREW filed suit. Last month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the citizens group; Roberts issued a stay, but three days later the full court vacated that action.
The issue can be traced to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed nonprofit organizations such as Crossroads to spend unlimited amounts of money to directly advocate for or against political candidates or issues. That invited donors to contribute to political groups, who would spend money on their behalf while the donors were afforded anonymity.
In other words, it violated a foundational element of democracy: Speech, in the form of political donations, must be allowed but the public has a right to know who is doing the speaking. In the Citizens United ruling, the court wrote that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” but it did not compel the information that allows for informed decisions. The court left that disclosure up to Congress, but the legislative branch has failed to act in the interests of the public on this issue.
Political advertisements do not decide elections, but they can be influential. Media tracker Borrell Associates estimated that $9.8 billion was spent nationally on advertisements during the 2016 campaign, an indication of the power of big money in the election process.
Critics of last week’s ruling suggest that some influence peddlers will choose silence rather than speech this November. Because donors contributed under the promise of anonymity, many would prefer to not partake rather than be exposed. That represents a victory for democracy; if somebody is trying to influence an election, it is essential for the public to know who is pulling the strings.
The original case involving Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington remains under appeal, meaning the issue is not settled. But for now it represents an important step toward the preservation of American democracy.