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The 2010 elections are almost over, and what we predicted earlier this year has come to pass. Political spending is skyrocketing, and we know less and less about where the money is coming from.

By Election Day, independent groups will have aired more than $200 million worth of campaign ads, using cash that can’t be traced back to its original source, Fred Wertheimer, president of the group Democracy 21, told Politico.com.

“And this is just the beginning,” Wertheimer said. “Unless we get some changes here to mitigate this problem, I expect we will see $500 million or more in 2012.”

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the enormity of this prediction. We are allowing unprecedented amounts of money to be spent influencing campaigns, and we don’t know where the cash is coming from.

This influx of money stems from January’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission. The court ruled that corporations should be treated the same as individuals when it comes to political speech. In other words, the courts have determined that political giving and spending on elections is a First Amendment right.

Don’t think for a minute that the money is not influencing Wisconsin’s politics. Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told the Tribune’s editorial board last week there are 43 groups trying to influence the state elections, and only 11 of them are disclosing donations.

“We will be kept in the dark by almost all of the money,” McCabe said.

As recently as 2006, more than 98 percent of the groups disclosed their donors in Wisconsin, McCabe said. That fell to 48 percent in 2008 and will be about 31 percent this year.

“We can track the spending but not who is giving the money,” McCabe said. “That’s going in the absolute wrong direction on transparency.”

As of late last week, McCabe said, the spending by the 32 groups was $8.9 million in the state.

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There still are rules in place that prohibit corporations and unions from donating directly to specific candidates or parties, but through political action committees they can directly promote or attack candidates through issue ads, where their support or attack is thinly veiled by a message urging people to contact a particular candidate.

In our region, we have seen nearly $22,000 spent on issue ads from PACs trying to influence the 92nd Assembly District, and nearly $687,000 spent in the 31st Senate District. And about $3.4 million has been spent so far on the governor’s race, which will certainly climb much higher.

“Our system has grown very sick,” McCabe observed.

He’s right.

This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. Both sides play the game. Groups are formed with the express purpose of concealing the donations, often with patriotic-sounding names but with very specific partisan agendas.

The Supreme Court decision also opened the door to the possibility of foreign money influencing our elections. Although that is against federal law, there have been plenty of allegations it’s already happening, and without accountability or transparency, we may never know the truth.

Amid all this bad news, there is hope. Minnesota has passed new disclosure legislation, which so far has been upheld by the courts, but it only applies to state elections and does not require disclosure on issue ads.

As we stand on the eve of the 2010 election, it is essential that state and federal lawmakers pass full disclosure laws. Corporations, unions and independent groups can spend all the money they want to, but make them disclose. Let’s make this the last year where secret donations are legal and start an open and honest electoral process.

It’s time to heal our democracy.


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