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Monday, April 18, 2005

A Sewer in Need of Some Sun - "Independent" Spending in Michigan Elections

this is an audio post - click to play

As Gary Heinlein reports in the Detroit News, $10 million of the $18 million spent on behalf of the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial candidates came from undisclosed sources, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Because Michigan has yet to update its campaign finance laws, interest groups with deep pockets were able to run ads without telling voters who was bankrolling the ads.

You've seen the ads: ominous music, dark lighting, and an apocalyptic voiceover that sends shivers down your spine about a candidate's position on some issue - health care, military spending, social security. These ads hit the airwaves in earnest in the weeks immediately prior to an election, often demonizing a candidate. While their funding is murky, their intent is clear: to influence an election for or against a candidate.

Federal law requires disclosure about who's running the ads and who paid for them, so that voters can evaluate the information presented and decide whether it merits consideration. Many states, including Michigan, do not require disclosure, allowing scathing attacks against candidates from shadowy sources.

Michigan House Majority Leader Chris Ward plans to reintroduce legislation similar to McCain-Feingold, the federal law which required practitioners of this form of sewer politics to disclose their funding sources.

He may face opposition from folks who benefit from the current law, including the industry of direct-mailers, campaign consultants, lobbyists, and elected officials with rich friends. One such official, Secretary of State Terry Land, received $360,000 in "independent" campaign spending on her behalf in 2002 from a political action committee whose chief donor was . . . her father. A spokesperson for Land said the Secretary ultimately wanted stronger disclosure rules.

Which is exactly what Michigan could use. We look forward to Secretary Land's vigorous efforts as Michigan's top elections official to bring some much needed sunshine to the state's elections process.

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