Campaign-finance secrecy & the uninformed electorate | AspenTimes.com
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Campaign-finance secrecy & the uninformed electorate

The Aspen Times Editorial

The ongoing debate over campaign-finance regulations in the local (as well as national) political arena poses a difficult choice between absolute unfettered freedom of speech and the public’s right to know.As a newspaper, we consider these to be our two most important guiding principles and it is painful to face an issue that pits one against the other. Those who oppose any kind of campaign-finance rules – most specifically, limits on spending and contributions, and required disclosure of all campaign contributors – say that such rules limit their ability to express themselves in political campaigns. Those who favor such rules say that unlimited spending can distort election results and that people have a right to know who is putting up the money to back an issue or candidate.The latest victory has gone to the no-rules free speech advocates.This week, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that certain kinds of political advocacy groups do not have to reveal who has given them money or how they have spent that money.The decision concerned, specifically, the Common Sense Alliance, a Roaring Fork Valley group that started in 1996 to support the election of Pitkin County commissioners who favored expanding Highway 82 to four lanes.Although we certainly favor free speech, we regret the veil of secrecy that can now hide a vital part of the election process. As a result of this secrecy, voters will be deprived of information that they need in order to make an informed decision at the polling place.In this troubled era of burgeoning local conflicts concerning everything from land-use restrictions to transportation technologies, when more and more money is being spent annually to push one cause or another, this is an unacceptable turn of events.As anyone can plainly tell who has been witness to recent political contests, both those involving candidates and those revolving around political initiatives, there is no question that money has a serious effect on the outcome of elections. Those who would argue otherwise are either foolish or dissembling.Indeed, it appears to be unquestioned that, in elections where candidates are seeking office, there is an absolute requirement that finances be disclosed. The court’s decision, however, eliminates such disclosure for campaigns in which issues, not candidates, are on the ballot. The argument that apparently swayed the court is that candidates can be influenced by contributions to change their attitudes and actions once in office, whereas issues are not susceptible to such vagaries.But this ignores the idea that initiatives, particularly in Colorado, have been forcing tremendous changes upon the state’s body politic for some time. Voters deserve to know the source of money being poured into local campaigns.Those who disagree with this point say that “the message speaks for itself,” that it is the content of a political ad that matters – not its sponsors. This might be true in an ideal world, where everyone spoke the truth and there were no hidden agendas, no secret deals. But in our modern world, advertising is too often designed – very cleverly designed – to deceive. Knowing who is paying the bills may help us better judge the motive behind the message. Such judgment is vital.Perhaps the bottom line is that democracy depends on an informed electorate and the current court decision has eliminated one very important source of information.It has been said that the Fair Campaign Practices Act of 1996 is flawed and should be changed to require all political advocacy groups to disclose their contributors and expenditures, and we agree. Because as long as this loophole exists, and groups can claim that their activities are above scrutiny, the political process is seriously flawed and will only add to a level of voter apathy and cynicism that is too high already.


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