No matter your political beliefs, we all benefit when we know who’s trying to influence our votes.
In a recent column on the Daily Mail Opinion page, Bryan Hoylman, the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of West Virginia, expressed concern with West Virginia Family Values, a super PAC founded by labor unions and lawyers to help elect worker-friendly candidates to state offices. He claims to be concerned because the group is spending so much money, but also because they are using a name that might confuse or mislead voters.
However, West Virginia Family Values is far from the only group taking advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door for super PACs and other political groups that are supposedly independent from the candidates they support to raise and spend unlimited sums trying to influence our votes.
In addition to giving wealthy special interests an even bigger voice than they already had, the decision also has led to more secret money and less disclosure in our elections. As a result, it is now harder than ever to know who is really paying for political ads.
Hoylman failed to mention the many conservative groups, like Grow West Virginia and Mountaineers Are Always Free PAC, that are spending big bucks to influence the outcome of specific races, and that are less than forthcoming about who is funding them.
Some of these groups have ambiguous or harmless-sounding names that give the impression they are grassroots organizations run by average citizens, when in fact they are funded and controlled by wealthy donors.
While spending by these groups might be disclosed, the money is often routed through multiple PACs and organizations to obscure its origin.
Whether you agree with West Virginia Family Values’ message or position on the issues, to their credit they made an effort to be transparent by providing a list of the unions and attorneys that are paying for the group’s ads.
The same cannot be said of many other groups active this election season that list no contributors on their financial disclosures other than the sponsoring group, or that have filled our mailboxes and airwaves without filing a single report with either the secretary of state or the Federal Election Commission.
Corporations, millionaires and billionaires shouldn’t be able to use secret money and negative TV ads to dictate what happens in our state. Our right to know who is influencing our elections isn’t a partisan issue.
Even in the Citizens United decision, a majority of the Court held that the disclosure of political spending “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Indeed, conservative justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a different case that “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
If we want a government that is truly of, by, and for the people, we must demand an electoral system that puts the voices of everyday voters first.
A first step to fight back against big money in our elections is to make sure that every group — liberal and conservative — attempting to sway our elections has to disclose where the money came from.
Julie Archer is a project manager at WV Citizen Action Group and co-coordinator of WV Citizens for Clean Elections, a coalition working to increase accountability and transparency in elections.