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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Shadow boxing

More information is better information April 19, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

There have been several efforts in the last few years to ban, or seriously reduce, "dark money" campaigns in Arkansas. House Bill 1899 is the latest. Maybe this one will have more luck.

It's on its way to being Tradition! by now: An election cometh. Toothy politicians begin showing off their résumés and best ties. Then the TV ads start up. And not all of them feature families and pets.

You know the set-up. An ominous and sinister voice interrupts programming. The candidate in the spotlight, and crosshairs, is featured with a terrible frown or smirk. Numbers flash across the screen. They are mixed with headlines for confused effect. Then the doomy voice asks you to call so-and-so candidate and tell him or her not to ever do something so terrible again!

These shadowy groups have dominated the airwaves in Arkansas over the last few election cycles. The Ledge has tried to put the cuffs on them before. And others have demanded that such ads be banned completely.

A better way to fight bad information, we've always said, is with better information. And when it comes to dark money, more information would be better, too.

Those who spend money on campaign commercials ought to 'fess up to it. HB1899 focuses on judicial races specifically. Its sponsor, state Rep. Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock), says the law allows anonymous money to target specific races as long as the ads don't explicitly support a candidate's election or defeat.

"The issue is that through that loophole comes millions and millions of dollars unchecked, unaccounted-for, mostly out-of-state, special-interest money in appellate judicial elections in particular," he said. His bill would require "comprehensive disclosure" of those behind the advertisements.

Arkansans like comprehensive disclosure. It's why we have one of the best FOI Acts in the country. We don't mind the sinister voices and slick commercials every two to four years. As long as we know who's paying for them.

Opponents of open government--or at least transparent campaigns--often claim that identifying those who spend money on political races in this state would have a "chilling effect" on their free speech. But if there's a chilling effect, it may be on who runs for election these days.

After all, if you dare stand as a candidate for public office, you might find yourself on television for six or eight weeks while a menacing voice tells your friends and neighbors what a dirty no-'count you are. And your friends and neighbors won't know who's paying for the ad. Or better yet, why.

When it comes to these shadowy groups, there's no such thing as TMI. Let's see who's behind the scenes. So we can put these TV commercials in context.


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