LANSING, Mich. — Those who have fought to try to limit the effects of money on influencing elections were dealt what seemed a fatal blow 3½ years ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was an unconstitutional limit on free speech to place any restrictions on corporate — or for that matter, union — spending on elections. No matter how much money is spent, no matter how close to the election it comes, and no matter how outrageous the claim.
That was the famous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, which was decided in a 5-4 vote.
But what is often overlooked is that the court also indicated that states could, and indeed should, require anyone who tries to influence campaigns to disclose how much is spent, and by whom. Yet Michigan doesn’t even do that.
That outrages and motivates Rich Robinson, who for years has run the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center dedicated to documenting how much money is spent to influence elections in the state, and reporting where it comes from.
Last month, Mr. Robinson released a massive report called “Descending Into Dark Money: A Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance 2012.” It attempts to chronicle spending in virtually every federal and state race in Michigan last year.
The report, which is filled with tables that document who gave what to whom, shows record spending last year.
Most ominous, more and more of that spending can’t be accounted for, because it is “issue advertising” done by sometimes-shadowy groups.
This has become acute in judicial campaigns, especially for the Michigan Supreme Court.
There, the parties and candidates spent $5 million — money whose sources can be traced. But that was vastly overshadowed by $13.85 million in “issue-oriented” TV advertising.
“There is no public record of whose contributions paid for the issue advertising,” Mr. Robinson said. He finds that outrageous.
“Citizens should have the right to know whose money is driving critically important election outcomes, so they can evaluate how campaign spending correlates” with what politicians do, he said.
For example, if a politician voted to relax emissions standards, shouldn’t people have the right to know whether General Motors gave money to that politician’s campaign?
The way it now stands, maybe not. Legally, anyone could form a group called, say, “Citizens for Happy Kittens” and take money from the Koch brothers, or the Socialist Workers Party.
Then the group could run ads that smear the record of a judge running for re-election. As long as such a group doesn’t actively endorse a candidate, it doesn’t have to disclose where that money comes from. That seems to run contrary to the intent of the Supreme Court in Citizens United.
In his latest “dark money” report, Mr. Robinson quotes approvingly from the court’s majority opinion: “The First Amendment protects political speech, and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions.”
You could argue that point, because there often is not enough time for harried voters to find out who sponsored a particular ad. But the reality, Mr. Robinson noted, is what we have to work with.
“I don’t believe there will be a time in the foreseeable future when there will be any restraints on spending,” he told me. “For that reason, I think it critical that we achieve authentic, rigorous disclosure of whose money is driving politics.”
He knows that some rich contributors don’t want to be disclosed. “They consider disclosure to be intimidation and a threat to freedom of association,” he said.
Mr. Robinson knows the chance of Michigan’s GOP-dominated Legislature passing a law that requires disclosure is dim. But the campaign finance specialist thinks the legal profession should ask for a ruling from Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson that the use of anonymous issue-oriented ads in judicial races is illegal.
He doesn’t think advocates can ever make the case for legal “issue-oriented” ads in a judicial campaign for one reason: “It is illegal to lobby judges. Once we achieve transparency in judicial campaigns, it will be much harder to justify in legislative and executive campaigns.”
So the ball, for now, is in the lawyers’ hands.
To check out the full report, and to see what money may have influenced any Michigan official, go to mcfn.org.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org