Do Montanans have a right to know who is spending money to influence public elections in their state?
That is the central question in a lawsuit filed last month against Montana's commissioner of political practices, attorney general and Yellowstone County attorney. Two members of Montana Shrugged, a Billings Tea Party group, are the plaintiffs. They asked the U.S. District Court to invalidate laws of Montana on reporting political expenditures. The lead attorneys for this Billings lawsuit are in an Indiana firm that was involved with the Citizens United case, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a federal limit on corporate/union political spending.
More recently, the Citizens United decision has been cited by a Helena state District Court judge in striking down Montana's century-old restrictions on corporate spending. That case is being appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
The Montana Shrugged lawsuit seeks to invalidate more state laws. Not only does it argue against spending limits, it argues against any public disclosure of its spending.
This is a troubling attempt to restrict voter information. Nationwide, independent organizations are pouring more money into advertising, polling and other efforts to influence elections for public office and ballot issues. And a growing proportion of that larger money volume is being spent by entities that want to remain anonymous.
Does a political campaign spender's desire to secretly influence an election outweigh voters' right to know who is paying for the mailings, TV commercials, radio spots, newspaper ads, e-mail and other communication bashing or praising a particular candidate or issue? Absolutely not!
An informed electorate is essential to preserving a strong, effective democracy.
It is likely that Montana lawmakers will be asked to throw out the state's campaign disclosure requirements in their session that begins Jan. 3. However, the 2009 Legislature strengthened campaign spending disclosures for candidates, in three bills sponsored by Republican lawmakers (Gary MacLaren of Victor and Roy Brown of Billings). It doesn't make sense to require candidates to report while ignoring all other election spending, which may be the bulk of spending.
The logic of campaign finance reporting is clear and compelling to all Montanans who value public information and a well-informed electorate.
This logic was well stated in a decision last month by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court upheld the ruling of a U.S. District Court judge in Washington state who rejected arguments from the same Indiana law firm that filed the Montana Shrugged Case. In upholding Washington state's laws on disclosing political spending, the appeals court cited the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson argued that information is a precondition for public debate, which, in turn, is a precondition for democratic self-governance: 'The diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration.' ”
As the appeals court said, consistent with Jefferson's vision, disclosure requirements have become an important part of our First Amendment tradition.
The court concluded that “The Disclosure Law represents Washingtonians' considered judgment that 'full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.' There is a substantial relationship between Washington state's interest in informing the electorate and the definitions and disclosure requirements it employs to advance that interest.”
That access to information must be preserved for the Montana electorate, too. Montana voters deserve to know who's trying to influence their votes so they can consider the source in weighing their ballot choices.