The US Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010),
Citizens United [the group] argues that the disclaimer requirements in §311* are unconstitutional as applied to its ads. It contends that the governmental interest in providing information to the electorate does not justify requiring disclaimers for any commercial advertisements, including the ones at issue here. We [the court] disagree. . . . At the very least, the disclaimers avoid confusion by making clear that the ads are not funded by a candidate or political party.**
I wrote last week about new rules in Washington State regarding disclosure with electioneering and how recent court rulings can be guides for greater transparency. Washington State laws require the sponsor of political ads appear in the media. The sponsor needs to be an actual human being and not a happy-name smokescreen hiding big money donors. This week I suggest how disclosure rules with federal races need to be modeled on Washington law.
A big story in the horse race coverage of the GOP presidential primary is how much media the so-called super PACs are buying. While it takes a simple visit to Open Secrets to find out who's funding these campaign tools, federal laws about electioneering and disclosure are still behind in serving transparency. Here's a typical ad, and please take note of the last few seconds:
Does it really help to know that a happy-name front group has bought yet another political ad? The disclaimer at the end should instead say, "Sheldon Adelson is responsible for the content of this message". It has been reported Mr. Adelson gave $5 million to the super PAC Winning Our Future that is funding these ads supporting the Newt Gingrich campaign for president.
According to the Citizens United ruling, which paved the way for the creation of the super PACs, voters need to be aware of who is funding electioneering as, ". . . transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
Why not also have an actual image of the largest contributor to a super PAC within the disclaimer? Perhaps then the big donors could think twice before paying for political ads that plaster their own name and face all over the media. At the very least, voters will know who really paid for the ad.
* Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act section 311 contains a disclaimer provision for electioneering communications. The entity responsible for the communication, if not authorized by the candidate or the candidate’s political committee, must contain a statement that the organization “is responsible for the content of this advertising.”
** p 52