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Although recent elections saw more people making small-dollar contributions to political campaigns, their influence was overshadowed by powerful special interests dumping vast sums of money into the political process. Often, these groups used sleight-of-hand accounting tricks or anonymous independent expenditures to hide themselves.
State lawmakers should enact laws that provide greater transparency in our campaign finance system so voters can assess for themselves the motives of campaign messages. Each side accuses the other of not playing by the rules but the truth is that there's plenty of blame to go around.
The right-leaning Building Industry Association of Washington recently settled state charges of concealing funds it used to promote Dino Rossi's 2008 campaign. Meanwhile, Moxie Media — a campaign consulting firm with a left-leaning clientele — is currently facing charges that it violated election laws by not disclosing the source of money used to pay for mailers sent to voters in the final days of the 2010 primary.
When we see campaign promotions that say "Paid for by the WSRP" or "Paid for by Washington State Democrats" we have a pretty clear understanding of who is sponsoring them and what they stand for. The same is true if we know an ad comes from the "Washington Conservative PAC," the "Statewide Poverty Action Network," or other organizations that include their political affiliation or their agenda in their names.
Unfortunately, campaign finance isn't always that transparent.
What do you think when you see a campaign flyer paid for by the "Alliance for Better Leadership" or "Better Future for Washington"? If you're like most people you probably ponder if there's an opposing "Alliance for Worse Leadership" or maybe shake your head wondering who doesn't want a better future for Washington.
Names like these are deliberately conjured up to provide their beneficiaries with an aura of support from a wholesome-sounding community group or to hide the source of financial support for political causes. It's a disingenuous tactic that makes the average citizen skeptical of our political process, and it's poisoning our democracy.
According to the independent expenditure filings with the state's Public Disclosure Commission, "Better Future for Washington" spent money to promote only incumbent Republican candidates, while a group called "Change Olympia" supported only incumbent Democrats.
The approach is often used to provide a facade of authenticity to independent expenditures supporting individual candidates by avoiding the use of the candidate's name in the organization. One example includes Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, who was the sole candidate backed by "Spokane Families for Change," while "Healthy PAC" supported only his successful Republican opponent, Sen.-elect Michael Baumgartner.
This tactic is especially pervasive among independent expenditures in initiative contests. In spite of its name, the funding for "Washington Citizens for Liquor Reform" didn't come from citizens and mostly came from outside Washington; its $2.7 million came from just two sources — Young's Market Company LLC of Los Angeles and Odom Southern Holdings LLC of Bellevue.
Likewise, four of the top five contributors to "Citizens for Responsible Spending" were out-of-state corporations: BP, Tesoro, JP Morgan Chase, and ConocoPhillips. Meanwhile, although Washingtonians for Education, Health & Tax Relief did get generous contributions from actual citizens who live in our state, it also got generous support from unions based in "the other Washington" such as the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union.
Although the amount of money being spent on political campaigns isn't likely to decrease, the health of our democracy depends greatly on citizens having knowledge of where that money is coming from and on whose behalf it is being spent.
Accountability begins with transparency, and our campaign-finance laws need to be changed accordingly. In addition to requiring greater transparency in our campaign-finance system, state lawmakers also should give greater oversight authority for the Public Disclosure Commission so that voters will know exactly who's spending how much to influence our political processes.
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