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EditorialOur View

Don’t hide sources of money

If there is a single entity that has made the greatest impact amid the din of candidate pitches to the electorate, it’s the almighty dollar.

Stunning amounts of cash have oiled the political machinery in the campaign season that ends today. Much of it greased the gears of individual candidates’ committees, but increasingly it’s poured in through pipelines that are expanding or are brand new. It’s a phenomenon that’s been plain in Hawaii’s high-profile gubernatorial and congressional races, as well as across the country.

This development is the direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in January, which essentially opened the floodgates for contributions coming directly from corporations — for-profit and nonprofit — to certain kinds of political action committees (PACs), and for spending on ads they create themselves. These ads, the court said, could support or oppose a specific candidate, striking down previous rules that they must be based on issues. In this ruling, the high court essentially defined such spending as a form of political speech, protected by the First Amendment.

But by a vote of 8-1, the court also supported in concept the notion of disclosure and disclaimer requirements: disclaimers in the ad or records elsewhere showing the public who gave the money. Such requirements, the court said, "do not prevent anyone from speaking."

That principle rightly was underscored in last week’s ruling by a federal judge here. U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright upheld the state law requiring noncandidate PACs to disclose names of contributors and include disclaimers identifying the organization behind the ads.

Unfortunately, federal rulemaking is lagging behind. Congress failed to pass new legislation to set up these rules before the midterms, which is one reason monied interests felt so free to pump in the big bucks: They could do so anonymously.

Congress must fulfill its responsibility to pass a revised version of the failed DISCLOSE Act, which could be improved with some key amendments. For instance, the same rules should apply to all corporations, whether they are businesses or unions; and some minimum threshhold should be defined for disclosure. The earlier proposal required disclosure of corporations giving more than $600; the threshhold should be higher to protect small-scale donors who have no relative control over the content of the political messaging.

Hawaii lawmakers in the past session further improved transparency in campaign financing by requiring corporations making more than $1,000 in donations during a two-year election cycle to report which candidates received amounts of $100 or more. That takes effect in January, so the Campaign Spending Commission is scrambling to set up an online filing system for corporations to use. Other needed system improvements — making the current contributions database searchable, for example — should be mandated by the Legislature, even if the commission needs time to clear its current top priorities. Easy access to the data is almost as important as requiring that it be filed.

It seems clear that floods of private money will be a feature of the electoral landscape for the forseeable future. The courts have established that every American individual and entity should feel free to contest in the public square of political campaigning. But they are entering the public realm and sacrifice some measure of privacy to do so.

The general public has the right to know who is bringing their considerable influence to bear on our government. Otherwise, the average voter will be left to fumble around in the dark, their own political expression diminished by the overwhelming force of anonymous power brokers.

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