The Boston Globe editorial board rightly called on the Massachusetts State Legislature to “alter campaign finance laws to thwart outside spending” in elections. As the editorial board correctly notes, “spending by outside groups has mushroomed since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision,” and unfortunately Massachusetts cannot unilaterally undo the decision. But that shouldn’t stop the state from taking other actions to mitigate their undue influence in the electoral process, particularly in the domain of disclosure.
Timely disclosure of all election expenditures by and donors to independent political entities is one area upon which we can definitely improve. The Massachusetts Disclosure Act, which was refiled in 2013 after passing the Massachusetts Senate in 2012, does just that.
First, it would close a loophole created by Citizens United that allows corporations to spend money in Massachusetts elections without disclosing at all. Second it would prevent corporations, organizations, and individuals avoiding full disclosure by funneling funds through intermediaries (remember those shell corporations in 2012). Third, it would require organizations to disclose their top five contributors on their advertisements so voters know the real interests of unknown organizations with non-descript names (see Committee for a Better Massachusetts). And fourth, it would cover Internet and email advertisements under the definition of electioneering communications so those expenditures are properly disclosed. These measures are absolutely necessary to stop the flood of secret money we have seen in our federal elections from spewing into our state and local elections.
And even more should be done. At the federal level, it’s high time that Congress and the IRS increase their vigilance of political activity by non-profit groups beyond just disclosure. A bright-line standard should be adopted that would prevent non-profits for engaging primarily in political activity, or risk losing their tax-exempt status.
In the mean time, candidate brokered pledges to limit outside spending and increase disclosure show real promise in creating a more transparent and accountable electoral process. But voters should not have to rely on candidates’ political calculations to enjoy an electoral process they can be proud of. It’s time for the state legislature, IRS, Congress and other able bodies to do what they can to ensure free and fair elections.