The environment surrounding election campaigns in Michigan is toxic, particularly for judicial elections, and lawmakers are trying to make things even worse.
This week, Michigan lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Rick Snyder that would both allow donors to remain anonymous when funding issue ads and double the amount individuals and independent action committees can donate to a candidate.
Under current state law, issue ads — which avoid the “magic words” such “elect” or “defeat” that explicitly urge a vote for or against a candidate — are exempt from disclosure requirements, meaning that political parties and special interests that fund these ads are allowed to remain anonymous.
This fall, however, campaign reform advocates (including the Brennan Center) petitioned Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to update the state’s campaign disclosure law to include so-called “issue ads.” Sadly, within an hour of Sec. Johnson’s announcement that she planned to close existing disclosure loopholes, the Republican majority moved to amend a pending bill that doubled allowable campaign contribution limit, adding a provision to preserve the issue-ad disclosure loophole.
Gov. Snyder, who opposed this disclosure loophole as a candidate in 2010, must now decide to sign or veto the bill. If he does not veto, he will send a signal of his allegiance to big-money campaign contributors over ordinary citizens, who have a right to know who is funding the deluge of negative campaigns.
Transparency in campaigns is particularly important in the context of judicial elections. According to a recent report, Michigan had the highest Supreme Court election spending in the country for the second election cycle in a row. Nearly 75 percent of the money spent on Michigan’s record-setting 2012 Supreme Court race was not subject to state disclosure laws, according to the same report.
Anonymous negative advertising in judicial races erodes the public’s confidence in the judiciary, forces judges to act like politicians, and may impact the decisions those judges make upon reaching the bench. In the post-Citizens United world of massive campaign spending, even the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized that “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
If Michigan wants to make the mistake of freeing up all that money to flow into its campaigns, the least it can do is ensure that the process is transparent so that those spending the money can be held accountable for their views.