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Interest Groups Buy Elections in the Dark

The American people should fight back against the crusade to hide election spending in a cloud of second-hand smoke.

March 7, 2012

For decades, the tobacco industry fought tooth and nail against restrictions on cigarettes and smoking. Now, some of Big Tobacco’s soldiers have moved on — to partisan politics. One of their primary strategies is to attack political disclosure laws that ensure transparency of money in politics — so that deep-pocketed interest groups like Big Tobacco can try to buy elections in the dark.

The Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF), a group founded by former tobacco industry executives, is a leader in this effort. While CFIF once worked to demonstrate the political downside of voting for anti-smoking laws, its mission statement now says it’s dedicated to protecting individual constitutional rights. But, in fact, CFIF’s attacks on political transparency undermine voters’ constitutional right to know who is trying to buy their votes.

CFIF recently sued two states — West Virginia and Illinois — to advance its efforts to invalidate laws that require groups seeking to influence elections to disclose information about their expenditures and donors. CFIF usually does not mention that it was among the top ad buyers within state Supreme Court elections from 2000 to 2009 — spending to the tune of $1,824,140. But, because CFIF would rather operate in the dark, it argues that disclosure laws violate the Constitution and serve no legitimate purpose. It is wrong on both accounts.

Voters are entitled to relevant information about those who are trying to influence elections. As the Brennan Center explained in a brief in the West Virginia litigation, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld robust campaign finance disclosure schemes because of the key governmental interests in providing the electorate with information, deterring corruption, and gathering data necessary to enforce other campaign finance rules. And, strong state disclosure laws have never been more important: A February 2012 report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows that individuals and organizations who gave at least $25,000 to federal super PACs in 2011 also donated an estimated $36.8 million to state campaigns between 2008 and 2010. Without robust transparency rules, voters have no way of following these dollars to their source and the political system is left vulnerable to corruption. 

For all of these reasons, the American people should fight back against CFIF’s crusade to hide election spending in a cloud of second-hand smoke.