In Our View: Sunshine Helps Politics

State's Public Disclosure Commission is a model for the rest of the nation



With the primary races finally over and the general election barreling down upon the public, voters might feel the need for a helmet and a flak jacket. The shrapnel is about to begin flying from all directions, sometimes in the form of facts and sometimes in the form of misinformation.And while an election can feel like standing in the middle of a battlefield, the State of Washington is here to help protect the electorate. Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission offers a wealth of information to help voters separate the blanks from the live rounds, offering data on how much money has been given to various campaigns and, more important, where the money comes from.

The Public Disclosure Commission website provides a searchable database compiled from campaign reports filed by candidates or their representatives. A new feature provides maps showing where donors are located, as well as charts displaying the types of contributors giving to campaigns. That money, of course, translates into campaign materials such as advertisements, signs and fliers designed to lead voters in one direction or another. And that is where the value can be found in the information provided by the Public Disclosure Commission.

Wondering why a particular ballot measure is being so heavily supported by TV ads? A click of the mouse reveals where the financing is coming from.

One of the enduring narratives of modern politics is that elections are bought and paid for by the wealthy, that donors and special interest groups can unduly influence the ballot box by controlling the flow of information. Creating the impression of widespread support can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is some truth behind that narrative. But a fact of the Internet age is that the populace can be more informed than ever. Fewer and fewer decisions these days are made in the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms, and while donors can influence the message and the volume of that message, voters who wish to be knowledgeable about the inner workings of politics can no longer plead ignorance.

That was the idea behind Washington’s Initiative 276, which passed in 1972 behind 72 percent of the vote and created the Public Disclosure Commission. At the time, of course, the Internet was about as likely as having 100 TV stations at your disposal. Yet the Internet has provided the logical progression in the collection and dissemination of campaign information.

In this regard, Washington has been about four decades ahead of the curve. The state’s quest for transparency in government and elections, as reflected by the creation of the PDC, has been a model for other states.

Yet there is room for improvement.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, has long pushed for the creation of a searchable database tracking lobbyist money. This would seem to be a simple and obvious addition to the numbers available in this Age of Information.

In addition, critics have said the PDC can be more effective in aspects of enforcement for candidates who violate election rules.

“Honestly, we probably have one of the very best and most transparent election systems in the nation,” Moeller told reporter Anna Marum of The Columbian. “I think it’s worked very well; it just needs some updating.’

These days, there is no excuse for anything less than pure transparency in politics. Washington should continue moving toward that.