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Require disclosure of donors to groups contributing to a ballot question

Hanging in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is a painting that is seared in the hearts and minds of middle-school children across this country. That painting depicts the events of June 28, 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams presented their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. A mere six days later on July 4, John Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. 

That signature was a true act of political courage. The signers of the Declaration knew that, by signing such a document, they were committing treason against the British crown. Acts of civic courage like these have allowed our democracy to survive for 235 years.

In this day and age, it feels like too many people in politics lack that civic courage to stand up for their beliefs. We must look no further than the current discussion about a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Minnesota. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council oppose an effort to require all corporations that contribute to a ballot question to disclose their donors. This disclosure is essential to ensure a fair and open public debate on this issue; otherwise, such groups would be able to hide who is funding political advertisements on the amendment.

Minnesota has a long history of supporting disclosure because of our desire for open and transparent elections. More important, voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote. Without knowledge about who is funding political speech, the public cannot adequately evaluate the information and misinformation spread throughout the campaign.

Anonymity would likely lead to nasty divisiveness
Unfortunately, these groups would prefer to hide behind anonymity to avoid criticism or debate over their actions. Such acts of political cowardice should be of serious concern to voters.  If individuals are allowed to contribute to these efforts anonymously, voters will most certainly be the victims of one of the nastiest and most divisive political campaigns this state has ever seen.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said it best: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”  Therefore, we are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech in this country, not anonymous speech, or speech that is shielded from criticism. The National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council would do well to remember this.

The Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board can take an important step today to encourage more political courage during the upcoming campaign on the constitutional amendment. The board should support the staff recommendations to require all corporations to disclose where their money is coming from. This move will help fulfill the board mission to “promote public confidence in state government decision-making.”

If the board fails to act, millions of dollars of undisclosed contributions will flow to both sides of the marriage debate. Does anyone believe that anonymous political attack ads are constructive for political discourse?  It is time for more people to show the same act of civic courage that our forefathers took in securing the birth of our nation.

Mike Dean is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.

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