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The press performs a public service when it can tell voters before an election who donates to a candidate's campaign.

Voters also should be able to know who donates to groups that pay for "electioneering" ads in the weeks before an election. Those ads don't urge a vote for or against a candidate, but cleverly--and often not subtly--imply that a candidate is on the wrong side of a particular issue, thus encouraging a vote without actually asking for it.

The groups that buy the ads are nonprofits that aren't legally required to identify donors under IRS rules. But that doesn't mean states can't demand those groups identify where the money for the electioneering, or "sham-issue ads," comes from.

After the recent Arkansas Supreme Court campaigns that saw a record amount spent on such ads by out-of-state groups, state leaders are calling for fresh laws to require those groups to register with the secretary of state's office and identify their donors.

This news is especially heartening as the 11th National Sunshine Week approaches (March 13-19). Started in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the American Society of News Editors), Sunshine Week coincides with the birth date of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and an advocate of the Bill of Rights.

News organizations, journalists and supporters of laws that increase access to public information use Sunshine Week to highlight the benefits of transparency in the conduct of public business, including elections.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the day after the March 1 elections that he supports ending the election of appellate court judges, including state Supreme Court justices, by popular vote.

But even if Arkansas moves to merit selection of Supreme Court justices followed by retention elections, "sham-issue ads" by outside groups could continue to stain our electoral process if they aren't required to register, as political action committees and campaigns must do, and aren't required to reveal their donors.

Arkansas' laws--specifically those applied to identifying contributors to political campaigns, including ballot initiatives--need to be modernized to reflect the realities of political activity and political speech in the 21st century.

Contributors to politically active nonprofits and trade associations may have a right to expect anonymity when their money goes to social purposes, but when the nonprofit exists primarily to produce so-called issue ads shortly before an election, its contributors should be identified.

Legislators could establish sensible thresholds for reporting contributions and contributors' names. There could even be provisions to allow donors to a group to remain anonymous by designating that their contributions not be spent on regulated political campaigns.

But all of these proposals for increased openness in state election campaigns will be pointless if our campaign-finance disclosure system itself is not modernized.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette produced a series of stories in January about major donors to the campaigns of state Supreme Court justices.

Reporting on those stories began shortly after the November 2014 elections, but the stories couldn't be produced quickly because state campaign rules still allow candidates to file their disclosure reports on paper.

They aren't even required to type them or to sort the donors alphabetically or by amounts. Oftentimes, the documents are illegible in spots because of poor photocopying.

Imagine you're a voter with a regular job and not a reporter assigned to review thousands of pages of forms to try to answer what should be a simple question: What group, industry or profession is the biggest contributor to a candidate's campaign?

It might take you longer than the eight months it took the journalist to compile all that information on a computer so that it could be tallied and analyzed.

The public, not just reporters, deserves a campaign-finance disclosure system that requires candidates and others who must report campaign spending to file electronically via computers.

The law must also require the secretary of state's office to put those financial disclosures into a computer database with an online interface that allows anyone interested to search contributions by amounts, by donor, by office and by candidate.

That would be real campaign-finance reform for Arkansas.


Sonny Albarado, special projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Committee and the state chairman for the 2016 observance of Sunshine Week.

Editorial on 03/11/2016

Print Headline: Let the sun shine

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