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Published: Sunday, 11/7/2010

Elections for sale

Before last week's election, Ohioans and other Americans were assaulted by political advertising on an unprecedented scale, most of it negative, misleading, or flagrantly wrong. A point was hammered home with every ad: Money did not talk in this election cycle - it screamed.

This was partly a response to the circumstances. Framed as a referendum on the direction of the country, the midterm election had high stakes. It naturally attracted interests that were willing to dig deep to support favored candidates.

What was not normal, however, was how the rules had changed. For the first time, the full effect of January's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was obvious.

Decided by a 5-4 majority in a fit of judicial activism, the high court's ruling gutted federal campaign-finance law and its long-established principles. The majority preposterously equated the First Amendment rights of corporations and unions with those of individual citizens.

In dissent, then-Justice John Paul Stevens warned prophetically that this "radical change in the law dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions - and the narrow interests they represent - in determining who will hold public office."

Worse yet, many of the independent sources of money in this high-profile election were unknown to voters. Secrecy offered the incentive for unscrupulous interests to spend freely.

The drearily predictable result was record-shattering election spending. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, independent group that tracks money in U.S. politics and runs the opensecrets.org Web site, estimated the final overall cost of the election cycle at around $4 billion.

"We knew this election could make spending history, but the rate of growth is stunning," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director. "This kind of money in 2010 makes the 2000 presidential election - hardly a distant memory - look like a bargain at $3.1 billion. And tens of millions of dollars of it is now coming from organizations who, by law, need not disclose their donors."

With the headache of bitter politicking still fresh, Americans of all political persuasions must take post-election stock of what happened and demand a change. The Disclose Act, a response to the Supreme Court ruling, seeks to increase transparency of corporate and special-interest money in national political campaigns.

The measure passed the House in June. But Senate Republicans blocked it, calling it an effort to favor Democratic interests. Viewing it through a partisan prism is shortsighted.

Republicans reeled in more campaign money than Democrats this cycle, but the thing about cycles is that they go around. It's time to put country, not party, first - and cure an ill that has made Americans suffer.

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