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This state’s open elections dodge another bullet

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
February 25, 2011 6:08 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It’s settled: The crypto-political action groups that package their ads as “issue advocacy” in this state will still have to disclose their donors and donations.

Human Life of Washington fought that requirement all through the judiciary; it lost for good last week when the Supreme Court rejected its appeal of a prior loss in the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals.

The case was a little peculiar from the start.

Human Life, which opposes euthanasia and abortion, mounted a “voter education” campaign in 2008 against an initiative that legalized doctor-assisted suicide in Washington.

So far so good. Arguing for or against proposed government policies is the essence of the political speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.

Human Life took this a step too far, though, when it challenged the state’s Public Disclosure Act, a law enacted by initiative that requires candidates and organizations to disclose their campaign spending. Human Life wanted to keep its donors secret, arguing that its “issue advocacy” wouldn’t amount to electioneering because its ads wouldn’t explicitly mention Initiative 1000.

Never mind that those ads targeted assisted suicide just as voters were making up their minds about an assisted-suicide initiative. The distinction between “education” and “campaigning” was pure fig leaf.

The peculiarity lay in Human Life’s claim that its donors must be protected by secrecy. Yet Human Life is a respectable, mainstream advocacy organization, and opposition to assisted suicide is a respectable, mainstream point of view – it was shared by 1.25 million voters in 2008, 42 percent of the electorate.

If Human Life’s donors need secrecy, what donors wouldn’t? Its argument against disclosure amounted to an argument against the disclosure of campaign donations, period.

The high court’s decision is another victory for the openness Washingtonians have come to expect in their elections. The last big one came in June, when the Supreme court ruled 8-1 that the First Amendment doesn’t prevent the state from providing public access to ballot-measure petitions submitted to the secretary of state.

That case – arising from a signature campaign to repeal a gay civil union law – could conceivably have sealed all petitions for any ballot measure in the country.

Disclosure is the foundation of honest political campaigns. Voters must be able to find out who is working to elect or defeat candidates and to enact or defeat ballot measures. They especially must be able to learn who is spending money to influence their voting decisions.

Washington’s strong tradition of open elections has, thank goodness, survived these serious court challenges.

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