The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:
Absentee ballots are arriving in mailboxes this week, marking the beginning of what's essentially a monthlong election day. As voters consider the issues and candidates, they're awash in an unprecedented flood of campaign advertising, much of it funded by people who don't identify themselves - and don't have to.
This deluge, partly driven by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, is alarming for believers in open government. Without disclosure of who's paying the bills, voters can't make informed decisions. The scary part is, that's exactly what political operatives are counting on. After all, the innocuous-sounding Americans for Prosperity has a lot better chance of persuading voters to elect a climate-change denier if they don't know the group is funded by oil interests.
The House has passed a version of the Disclose Act, which would help solve this problem by requiring corporate and union donors to be disclosed by independent groups. But the Senate has twice failed to follow suit. When it returns after the Nov. 2 election, it must make this reform a top priority.
The Citizens United ruling gave companies and unions the same rights as individuals to make unlimited political donations. But big public companies may fear getting too involved after what happened to Target, when it gave $150,000 to a group supporting a Minnesota candidate opposed to marriage equality. State law required the group to disclose the donation, gay rights activists organized a boycott, and the company was forced to apologize.
But smaller private companies, along with wealthy individuals, are giving massive sums to nonprofits like Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire oil executives David and Charles Koch, and American Crossroads, started by Karl Rove. As long as these groups spend less than half their money on political advertising - a loosely defined term - they don't have to disclose their donors.
The Washington Post reported Monday that these groups have spent $80 million so far this year - five times what was spent at this point in 2006. More than 90 percent of the donations were disclosed with the donors' identities four years ago; this time around, less than half have been.
The Post also reported that this year, the money is benefiting Republican candidates by a 7-to-1 margin. That explains why not a single Senate Republican and only two in the House have been willing to vote for the Disclose Act.
So come January, we'll have a crop of ambitious lawmakers beholden to donors the public has no way to identify. How can they be held accountable?
We hope that once the election frenzy subsides, a few Republican senators will listen to their consciences. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, John McCain, Richard Lugar and Thad Cochran all previously have voted for much more restrictive campaign finance laws.
The Disclose Act will be just a start at solving campaign finance problems. For example, Congress and the IRS need to examine whether independent groups are abusing their nonprofit status. But the act will help solve one very real problem, and if the Senate doesn't pass it, we'll have even more evidence that lawmakers are out for themselves and their donors - not the people.