Alaska editorial: Be savvy to the game

This editorial originally ran in the Anchorage Daily News:

The Alaska Public Offices Commission’s recent opinion allowing unlimited campaign spending for or against candidates by independent groups — corporations, unions, business organizations — wasn’t conjured out of thin air. The opinion is based on the law of the land, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s an awful interpretation that ignores how the real world works, but one we have to live with until Congress acts or the court reconsiders.

Across the United States, we’ve already seen examples of huge expenditures of corporate and special-interest money to influence the election or defeat of candidates. Wisconsin’s recent recall election for Gov. Scott Walker was one example, where tens of millions were spent, most of it on Walker’s behalf and almost half of that from out of state.

In Montana, the governor has complained of corporate spending to back candidates serving special interests, and has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its Citizens United decision of 2010 — after the Montana Supreme Court, in defiance of the Citizens United ruling, upheld a century-old ban on corporate contributions.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the dissenting judges in the 5-4 Citizens United decision, said the Montana court was wrong to cross the highest court in the land, but that the case is a good opportunity to reconsider the 2010 ruling in light of what the court and the nation has learned about the effects of massive, independent corporate and special-interest giving in the last two years.

It doesn’t take a cynic to understand that such huge investments aren’t made for the sake of robust civic engagement. They’re made with the expectation of something in return. And that invites — and encourages — corruption.

The court’s decision that gave the rights of individuals to corporations and defined money as free speech skewed the democratic process. Now wealth can dominate communications and drown out dissent. The fig leaf of separation between candidate and independent supporter doesn’t make the candidate any less beholden to the independent supporter who bankrolls her ride to office by spending even more than the candidate’s own campaign.

Even if that changes, it won’t change in time for Alaska’s 2012 primary and general elections.

Paul Dauphinais, APOC’s executive director, said the state’s disclosure laws — enacted in response to the Citizens United decision — remain in force. Those laws require independent ads to include their source and top three donors, so that Alaskans have some idea of who’s behind them and why they’re fighting for or against a particular candidate.

That’s good. But the no-limit spending will require Alaska voters to be sharper than ever about spending sources and calculated spin. Short of a reversal of the court’s decision, the best response our representative democracy can make to this mistake is voters who think critically, see through propaganda and vote for the common good.

Until Supreme Court sees the light, Alaska voters will have to see through more smoke.

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