BANGOR, Maine — Every election year Americans are bombarded by political ads that are funded by candidates, organizations, unions and other special interest groups, which in years past have had to disclose who paid for them.
That changed in January when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission case and essentially gave corporations the same political speech rights as citizens, says Chris Bell of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
“As it stands today, basically any corporation can directly pay for ads to attack” or mislead voters without having to disclose who paid for the ads, he said Wednesday. “Special interests are completely free to use their power and money to influence our elections.”
The U.S. Senate began Wednesday to debate the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would require disclosure of spending by special interests in elections. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure today.
Bell, Rick Schweikert, who owns Bangor’s Grasshopper Shop, and Barbara McDade, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, held a press conference in front of the downtown shop to urge Maine’s senators to support the DISCLOSE Act.
“We don’t have the power to fight these big corporations,” Schweikert said. “We’re not asking for that much — we’re asking for disclosure.”
He added later, “We have the right to know.”
McDade said that without disclosure, foreign or hostile countries or deep-pocketed corporations can buy ads to influence voters.
“Voters deserve to know who is behind advertising,” she said.
The DISCLOSE Act, as written, needs to be tweaked in order for Republicans to support it, McDade said, stressing that Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine are in a position to negotiate positive changes to the measure to create “a bill that is strong and good to everybody,” she said.
“Our country needs them now more than ever,” McDade said.
The offices of Snowe and Collins issued statements late Wednesday opposing the legislation now before them.
“As a longtime supporter of full disclosure in campaign advertising — who worked with Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold over a period of years to include in the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act the disclosure provision I co-authored that was struck down this year by the Supreme Court, … no one wants to get this legislation right more than I do,” Snowe said. “That is why I am deeply disappointed that the legislation currently before the Senate is a 117-page wide-ranging bill that does not apply equally to everyone who is engaged in campaign advertising, contains provisions that are clearly unconstitutional, and has never benefited from full public review and vetting at even a single committee hearing.
She added: “There are many concerns I have with this legislation, including the continued unequal treatment of unions and corporations, and I continue to believe this bill would not withstand constitutional scrutiny due to the overly burdensome federal mandates it would impose upon free speech.”
Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said that “as a co-sponsor of the 2002 campaign finance reform law, Senator Collins was disappointed that the Supreme Court struck down so many key provisions of this bipartisan legislation. She opposed cloture on the DISCLOSE Act earlier this year because she does not believe it is the correct legislative remedy. Senator Collins believes, right now, the Senate should be tackling the real concerns of Maine families, which are jobs, the economy and taxes.”
Based on a previous vote in July, the legislation needs to pick up one Republican senator for the DISCLOSE Act to move to the Senate floor for consideration and action, Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit organization Democracy 21, said in a statement Wednesday.
The question is whether “the right of voters to know who is funding ads to influence their votes” is more important than “the right of donors to make secret, unlimited contributions to influence federal elections,” he said.
“Democracy 21 believes the choice is clear,” Wertheimer said. “The American people have a constitutionally supported right to know the donors who are providing the money for campaign expenditures to influence their votes.”
Both Snowe and Collins have a record of being campaign finance reform supporters, he said.
In downtown Bangor, Bell said a recent poll by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections demonstrates that 85 percent of Mainers believe it is important to know who paid for the political ads, and urged Snowe and Collins to listen to their constituents.