Washington residents scored a significant victory recently when the United States Supreme Court upheld this state's Public Disclosure Act and its requirement that political campaigns disclose their list of donors.
Voters in Washington state have a long history in support of campaign transparency. In many ways, Washington led the nation in insisting that voters be allowed to peer into the inner workings of political campaigns, to know where candidates are receiving their money and how they are spending it.
In the spring of 1972, Michael T. Hildt of Seattle, backed by several open government organizations, filed Initiative 276 with the secretary of state’s office. The team collected 162,710 signatures to qualify the measure to the Nov. 7, 1972, ballot where an overwhelming 959,143 voters supported the Public Disclosure Act with just 372,693 votes against.
Olympia resident Jolene Unsoeld, a good-government advocate, was one of the first people in the state to take advantage of the financial disclosure records produced under the law. A self-appointed watchdog on special interest groups and their influence in elections, Unsoeld published two editions of “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?” Unsoeld’s seminal work paved the way for newspaper reporters to begin delving into campaign finance records and informing voters about the money behind political campaigns. Unsoeld went on to serve in the state Legislature and the United States Congress, based in part on her pioneering efforts to take the wraps off campaign spending.
Not surprisingly, those who favor secrecy have attempted to keep as much information out of the hands of voters as possible. There have been numerous assaults on the Public Disclosure Act over the years, both through the state Legislature and in the courts.
The latest skirmish was launched by Human Life of Washington, with a court challenge claiming the requirement to disclose contributions to its political action committee is an abridgement of its free speech rights. Human Life objected to the mandate to reveal its donors in a 2008 campaign opposing an assisted suicide ballot measure.
Human Life took its case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last October – and lost. The San Francisco court said disclosure requirements “have become an important part of our First Amendment tradition.”
The judges went on to say, “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.”
Human Life appealed the decision to the nation’s highest court in hopes of getting a reversal. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court let the 9th Circuit’s decision stand.
“We’re pleased that our state’s campaign finance disclosure laws have again been affirmed and the people of Washington will continue to be able to follow the money in ballot measure campaigns,” said Dan Sytman, a spokesman for state Attorney General Rob McKenna.
Secretary of State Sam Reed was quick to praise the high court decision, too, saying “sunshine in government and in our elections is part of our culture in this state.”
Human Life of Washington CEO Dan Kennedy, of course, saw things differently. He said the decision represented “a sad day for Lady Liberty.”
We disagree. The Supreme Court decision was a great day for openness and transparency in campaign financing. Through campaign disclosure, voters know much more about their political candidates and who might benefit – or suffer – by their election.
Voters have a right to know who is influencing their votes by stuffing their mailboxes full of campaign hit pieces and flooding the airwaves with one political advertisement after another.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said through its Human Life decision that voters in this state have a right to know, “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?”