Remember the good old days, when political action committees were the worst example we could imagine of legal organizations exercising a corrupting influence on our elections?
Yes, we know; lots of people aren’t old enough or don’t have good enough memories. But it wasn’t that long ago that good-government types spent their time worrying that PACs allowed businesses and other special interests to gain undue influence over candidates because they could make larger donations than individuals and accept large contributions to fund those donations.
Fast forward to last month’s Charleston municipal elections for an illustration of how far federal court rulings and elected officials have defined down “worst we could imagine” — and a surprisingly gratifying pair of results.
This year's Charleston municipal election was one in which a national trend hit home: campaign spending by organizations beyond candidates' control, several of which chose not to report their donors.
Lowcountry Livability PAC made it clear to everyone who it was and what its goals were, and since it’s a PAC it reported its donations and expenditures to the State Ethics Commission; three of the four challengers it supported were elected to the Charleston City Council.
Meantime, the murky Citizens for a Better Charleston refused to say where its money came from or to clearly define any goals, and it failed in its efforts to tarnish and unseat Mayor John Tecklenburg.
Now it’s true that the elections might have turned out the same without the involvement of the outside groups. But it’s also true that we wouldn’t need to worry about the influence of so-called “dark money” interference in politics if voters always voted against the candidates who benefit from it.
Unfortunately, that’s not always, or even routinely, the case. Far too often, individuals and organizations defeat perfectly respectable candidates by hiding behind noble-sounding names and spending obscene amounts of money on grossly misleading or even manufactured claims that make it laughable to even complain about the marginally out-of-context claims against Mayor Tecklenburg.
That’s why the S.C. Legislature needs to require groups that spend money on political mailings or newspaper, internet, radio or TV ads to report that spending to the Ethics Commission. It’s why the Legislature needs to require those groups to report the names of any donors who give them more than $1,000. Such laws would simply shine some sunlight on the dark-money spending that groups on both the right and the left have increasingly used to manipulate us into voting the way they want us to vote — even in our local elections.
Frankly, we’re a little tired of people who masquerade as conservatives whining because the marketplaces of goods, services and ideas work in a way that they find inconvenient.
There will always be constitutional questions when governments try to regulate political speech. But South Carolina is one of only three states, along with Alabama and Indiana, that don’t do anything to even track third-party spending on elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court never said we can’t require people to report their campaign spending. Indeed, the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling that struck down limits on third-party expenditures said just the opposite: There’s no need to worry about unlimited election spending creating corruption precisely because the spending is reported. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in another case that same year: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
The Legislature needs to acknowledge that and prohibit people from engaging in the corrosive, cowardly and distinctly un-American practice of hiding their identities from us when they spend money to influence our elections.