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Minnesotans should know who’s trying to influence our votes

REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
This bill is a step forward so that you know who is paying to influence your vote and your elected leaders.

Critics of the proposed changes to Minnesota’s campaign-finance law have labeled the reforms as a way for the DFL to silence opposition and tell the nonprofit community to “shut up.” The truth is that the legislation merely asks: “Who’s talking?” Its purpose is disclosure of those who are trying to influence the vote — be they Democrat, Republican, or nonpartisan.

Sherri Knuth

The pending legislation (SF 1915/HF1944) enacts modest reforms by expanding disclosure requirements to include electioneering communications. Disclosure applies when an organization targets recipients — such as a House district — with information, to influence the election of a candidate in proximity to an election.

If the organization reaches a designated financial threshold, it will have to identify that it paid for the ad or mailing and disclose what the organization spent and who donated the money. There are significant exceptions, such as communications to the organization’s own members.

We are in this situation because in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that in the world of political donations, special interests are the same as people. The Citizens United decision opened the door for unlimited, undisclosed donations to political action committees (PACs), most of which specialize in mudslinging in the month leading up to an election.

Sometimes called ‘sham issue ads’

The ads themselves are referred to as electioneering communications or sometimes “sham issue ads” because, although they explicitly mention a candidate with the purpose of persuading someone to vote for them or vote for anyone but them, they don’t use the “magic words” of advocacy such as “vote for” or “defeat.”

Twenty five other states already have disclosure requirements in place for electioneering communications, as does the federal government. But in Minnesota, organizations don’t even have to identify the name of the group behind such an ad, and that’s a problem.

Jeremy Schroeder

The proposed Minnesota legislation is finely tuned. Nonprofits will be able to distribute scorecards to members or post scorecards on their websites without triggering disclosure requirements. Disclosure requirements would be triggered if the nonprofit publishes the scorecard and sends it to constituents of a particular House or Senate district to influence the election of an identified candidate.

If a tax-exempt nonprofit is putting out educational materials, it will continue to be able to do so. Already 501(c)(3)s are prohibited by IRS regulations from activity to influence the election of a particular candidate, so they will not be affected at all.

Further, disclosure will be required only when communications that come under the terms of the legislation exceed $1,500 in a calendar year.

Disclosure will illuminate more dark money

True, some activity aimed at influencing elections that was not reported in the past will now be subject to disclosure. But the outcome will be to illuminate more of the dark money that is pouring into our political system, primarily through well-financed PACs. To paint the proposed electioneering legislation as governmental overreach or as an attempt by a political party to shut out nonpartisan groups is a gross misunderstanding of this disclosure bill.

Don’t be fooled by those who would have you think this is a step backward. Citizens United was the step backward. All of us evaluate what we see and hear based in part on who’s doing the talking. This bill is a step forward so that you know who is paying to influence your vote and your elected leaders.

Jeremy Schroeder is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. Sherri Knuth is the policy and outreach manager of League of Women Voters Minnesota.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/11/2014 - 12:13 pm.

    “Minnesotans should know

    who’s trying to influence our votes.”

    Why? If you learned that Al Franken was heavily supported by Bill Mahr or Alec Baldwin or any number of despicable Hollywood types, would that prevent you from voting for him? I didn’t think so.

    • Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 04/11/2014 - 02:50 pm.

      Candidates vs Others

      Candidates are already required to disclose their funding sources:
      http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/fecfeca.shtml#Disclosure

      So if someone as undesireable as Alec Baldwin were ever to give money to a candidate, Dennis, you’d know it.

      However, if Alec Baldwin (or the Koch Brothers, or PeeWee Herman or whoever else) wanted to donate to the NRA or Planned Parenthood or any other non profit and who would spend that money influencing an election, we’d have no way of knowing.

      This law aims to fix that.

  2. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 04/11/2014 - 01:40 pm.

    Great News!

    I’m so glad to see that Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are still doing what they do best – agitating for improved democracy.

    Corruption equals dollars divided by donors. The Supreme Court may have stopped us temporarily from limiting the number of dollars per donor. But it hasn’t stopped us from demanding for all citizens the right to know who is spending millions to try to influence them anonymously with deceptively truthy, misleading, and manipulative ads that distort more than inform.

    I would require every broadcast or published ad of every kind to be labeled with a Surgeon General’s Warning that indicates the number of flesh-and-blood sponsors it has. A full list of the sponsors’ names should be e-mailed to any viewer or reader who requests them.

    The proposed legislation is only a baby step in the right direction, but I have no doubt that once we take it, the way forward will become clear, as more dark money is brought to light. The defenders of the corrupt status quo have reason to be nervous.

  3. Submitted by George Beck on 04/12/2014 - 04:11 pm.

    LVW Study

    The League of Women Voters has recently issued an excellent report on disclosure of political campaign, contributors authored by Sherri Knuth. Contact them for a copy.

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