State lawmakers should eliminate a legal workaround that lets vague-sounding political action committees obscure who is truly behind political campaign ads.
Voters should be able to look at a political ad and know who paid for it.
Yet in Washington state, that isn’t always the case.
Theoretically, state law requires political committees to list their top five donors directly on the campaign ads they buy. But a legal workaround is often exploited by groups across the political spectrum, allowing vaguely named political-action committees to appear as the sole donors instead.
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This practice of routing money through multiple political-action committees effectively obscures the true donors behind political advertising. That, in turn, can encourage a culture of sleazy attack ads, since the people paying for them can easily hide behind an innocent-sounding shell PAC.
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This is something the Legislature should fix. Lawmakers must pass a bill this session that would drill down to the bottom layer of political committees, requiring the true top contributors to be listed on mailers and TV spots.
Senate Bill 5221, sponsored by Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, would accomplish that. The measure, which has a hearing Friday before the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee, would require ads to list the top five individuals and entities who contributed money — not just the top five contributing PACs.
This would require looking at who gave the most money, in aggregate, to all of the main political committees involved in paying for an ad.
State Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, plans to introduce a similar proposal in the state House.
This is a sensible reform that would help citizens readily know which individuals, corporations, unions or other groups are trying to influence them.
For instance, it could deter liberal groups from coining conservative-sounding PAC names to try to mislead voters, as has happened in the past. In 2010, Moxie Media used these kinds of interconnected PACs as part of a campaign-advertising masquerade that aimed to help a liberal candidate beat a more moderate Democratic state senator from Everett.
The bill could also limit the ability of conservatives to pose as liberal activists, something that happened last fall in several competitive state legislative races. A conservative activist created mailers that looked like they came from left-leaning groups, urging voters to write in a “real progressive” candidate who wasn’t on the ballot. Democrats claimed the ads undermined their candidates who were actually running.
Washington’s election laws shouldn’t let anyone fly under the radar. Fixing this gap in our campaign-finance rules should be a priority for lawmakers this year, so that new standards can be in place by the time elections heat up in 2020.