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Editorial: Ad disclosure vital to election integrity

March 25, 2010

The state Government Accountability Board on Tuesday provided much needed balance to the U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year that ruled corporations and unions are protected by the First Amendment and are entitled to pour obscene amounts of money into influencing the outcome of elections.

The GAB correctly, and decisively, said it would require corporations and special interest groups who finance so-called "issue ads" to disclose their spending so voters know who is behind the ads.

In January, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act, a campaign reform law, that prohibited all corporations and unions from paying for independent campaign commercials attacking or advocating for a candidate within 60-days of an election. The Court did uphold requirements for disclaimer and disclosure by sponsors of advertisements.

The GAB action merely prevents corporations or unions from hiding behind euphemistic titles – Americans For a Better America – to sway voters. It re-affirms the concept that the public has a right to know who is attempting to influence an election and allows voters to determine the credibility of the advertising claim. To add teeth to the measure, the board also voted unanimously to institute additional rules that would require registration, reporting and disclaimers for election advertising by special interest groups.

"We want to require as much disclosure and transparency as we possibly can," Jonathan Becker, administrator of the board's ethics and accountability division told the Associated Press.

The Supreme Court ruling effectively wiped out a century old Wisconsin law that made it illegal for corporations to spend money from their treasuries to donate to candidates, run ads supporting or opposing them or make expenditures on their behalf.

To offset the potential negative impact of the Supreme Court ruling, the board acted to close a loophole in election laws that restrict direct campaign contributions. Instead, groups that had a vested interest in the outcome of elections developed the tactic of buying "issue ads" that attack or praise candidates on specific issues but stop short of soliciting votes for or against a specific candidate. The groups have been unregulated and thus able to deceive voters. The GAB rules bring sunshine to the campaign process. We applaud the Government Accountability Board for aggressively protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin.

THE FINAL THOUGHT: Full disclosure on election ads is meaningful campaign reform.

(This editorial is published on the G.A.B. site because it is no longer available for free on the newspaper's website.)