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We should let voters decide on disclosure of dark money

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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed at the end of 2017, leveled the playing field between small and big businesses and brought shared prosperity.

North Carolina is a purple state, maybe 51-49 Republican; yet, Republicans control almost 60 percent of the state legislature. It is a state whose healthcare outcomes are in the bottom half of states; yet because of the Republican legislature, it is one of only 11 states that have resisted Medicaid expansion benefits.

The glue that allows these inequities to persist is money — especially dark or secret money.

In the North Carolina Senate race, Democrat Cheri Beasley’s campaign raised almost three times as much as the GOP’s Ted Budd. But Republicans forked over almost $45 million more in outside money than the Democrats, more than a little of it was dark money.

I have no doubt that Tar Heel voters would approve a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission and would vote overwhelmingly for Medicaid expansion and require disclosure of big money contributors.

That’s not possible because the deck is stacked.

North Carolina, unlike two dozen states, doesn’t allow citizen initiatives on the ballot. That would threaten these politician’s cozy sinecure, much of which is fueled by secret money.

When put on the ballot, states opt for independent redistricting commissions. Seven chiefly conservative states — like Oklahoma and South Dakota — voted for Medicaid expansion over the objections of conservative office holders.

The most striking success was more than 72 percent of Arizonans voted to require the identity of dark money contributors.

Terry Goddard, a former state Attorney General, spearheaded what he calls a “long slog.” The key was to get the measure on the ballot, as for six years opponents challenged petitions and legal requirements.

Goddard and his allies spent $1 million to get almost 400,000 signatures — 125,000 more than required. Once on the ballot, it was easy, supported at the polls by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The avalanche of secret money grew from the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision which opened the money spigot for federal campaigns.

Since Citizens United, the amount of dark money increased more than 60-fold; there was over $1 billion of undisclosed campaign contributions in the midterms.

The ruse is easy. Direct contributions to a candidate have to be disclosed, but a so-called 501(c)4, supposedly an organization to promote “social welfare,” can hide the identity of its donors. The “social welfare” some espouse is apparently for a politician’s success.

Democrats are as guilty as Republicans, though with a huge caveat: Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse proposed a law to require disclosure of all contributions over $10,000 — every Senate Democrat there supported it; every Senate Republican opposed it.

Although immensely popular with voters — gaining almost three-quarters of voters’ support in the Grand Canyon state — this is not a fight for the faint-hearted. In states that allow citizen initiatives, the vested interests will fight ferociously.

On other issues, entrenched Republican powers have been perfectly willing to ignore the will of the of voters. In 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters said non-violent felons should be allowed to vote. Republican politicians then erected new barriers — especially a requirement that all fines and fees had to be paid first, in essence a poll tax. In Ohio, the state Supreme Court ruled the 2022 congressional redistricting plan was illegal; the GOP state legislature just ignored it.

Since, as the late California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh said, money is “the mother’s milk of politics,” anything like full disclosure rattles the cages.

As well as procedural hurdles, the chief contention is that disclosure would be a “chilling” infringement of free speech.

Never mind whether campaign contributions are the same as speech, disclosure imposes no infringement on campaign giving. It simply would say — in the federal instance — disclose anything more than $10,000 … in Arizona it’s $5,000.

“We’re not talking about free speech,” says Goddard. “We’re talking about using a megaphone of massive amounts of money to influence voters. There should be no right to hide.”

Consider perhaps the most eloquent defense of disclosure:

“The premise of the First Amendment is that the American people are neither sheep nor fools and hence fully capable of considering both the substance of the speech presented to them and its proximate and ultimate source… Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

That was Antonin Scalia, the forceful intellectual leader of the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc for decades.

In Citizens United — a decision I didn’t like — eight of the nine Justices embraced disclosure in campaign contributions.

So, Sen Whitehouse keep the heat on, embarrass those against “civic courage,” and those states that allow citizen ballot initiatives, Arizona is your model. You listening Florida?

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Antonin Scalia Ballot initiatives Campaign finance in the United States Campaign finance reform Cheri Beasley Citizens United Citizens United v. FEC Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission dark money financial disclosure North Carolina North Carolina politics Sheldon Whitehouse Ted Budd Transparency

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