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OTHER VOICES: Political donations demand public disclosure, transparency

July 24, 2018 GMT

Amid the fury about the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Donald J. Trump, a very important change happened that could influence elections as much as possible Russian interference.

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that nonprofits that spend money to influence elections no longer have to disclose donors’ names or addresses. Money donated to these nonprofits is already called “dark money” because the public does not know who is giving money. However, now these same organizations don’t even have to disclose it in tax filings to the Treasury department.

The dark money just got darker.

Now, the new rule doesn’t require disclosure to the federal government, but the law still requires those organizations to track the donations and it still allows the IRS to ask about the donations.

Yet, it’s just one more way that disclosure and transparency are being blurred, and it makes it just that more difficult for the average citizen to understand what money is influencing whom.

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We have always disagreed with the Supreme Court and others who contend money equals free speech. Using that logic, those with more money have a disproportionate voice in any conversation. The idea, though, is that you shouldn’t need money to have an equal say when it comes to government or representation.

We agree that money can buy influence -- but influence and voice are two different things.

Yet, we also believe that telling an American what he or she can and cannot spend money on -- so long as it’s legal -- seems to be... well, kind of unAmerican, too.

That’s why we think that as the government keeps adding and subtracting layers to its campaign donation law, the solution is really pretty simple.

Citizens should be able to donate as much as they want to whichever candidate they want --- however (and this is the key part), every donation more than $5 must be tracked, recorded and disclosed.

You see, we don’t doubt that money, especially a lot of it, can buy influence. To pretend otherwise is to be naive about politics.

Furthermore, we don’t doubt that people who have money spend lavishly on politicians from all states and different parties because it’s just a good insurance policy. Again, to pretend that doesn’t happen is also foolish. Take a look at large corporate donations, and you can find those entities giving money to a lot of different politicians.

The problem, as much as some say, isn’t in the money, it’s in the disclosure.

A candidate may be be bankrolled by an interest, business or even individual. We just want to know who is paying the bills. More importantly, it should be up to the voters to decide if that money and those donations equal power or influence.

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More disclosure, not less, would do two important things. It wouldn’t limit how much can be given, which only seems like it creates a cottage industry in lawyers and lobbyists figuring out loopholes. But, it also has the effect of being self-limiting.

In other words, if a large donor (or any donor) worries that donating to a politician, a party or a cause may injure his or her reputation, they’ll be less like to give or less like to give as much, if at all. In that case, the law would work as an incentive for more moderate behavior.

Money’s role in politics is certainly corrosive -- if for no other reason than it encourages war-chest fundraising and non-stop ads that only seem to attack and disparage rather than to promote and inform. Alas, that probably says more about the voters and what appeals to them than the politicians.

We’re also all for free speech -- but free speech is only powerful and meaningful when it’s got a name tied to it. In other words, freedom of speech comes with responsibility. That’s impossible to do with anonymity. But, if as the Supreme Court says that money is speech and the IRS says that speech can be anonymous, then there can be no responsibility for it. And, we believe that transparency in donations is the way to ensure accountability in speech.

There is a right to free speech and participation, but there should be no guarantee of anonymity.