John Laird: Voters wonder: Who are those masked mega-donors?

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Whether you're conservative, liberal or independent, you should be glad to know the following: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has donated $1 million to support the charter schools initiative that is expected to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot. To that same cause, almost a half-million dollars was donated by the parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings chipped in $100,000.

You should be equally glad to also learn this: In opposition to the charter schools initiative, the Washington Education Association is donating staff time.

The point of this column is not to support or oppose charter schools, or draw conclusions about those who donate to either side. What really matters is that we know what appears in those first two paragraphs, and this helps form our opinions about how to vote. So forget for a moment the trendy "TMI" retort because, when it comes to voting, there's no such thing as too much disclosure.

This belief ought to be universal in a free society with a popularly elected government. Sadly, though, some members of Congress don't agree and have gone all TMI on us when it comes to disclosing campaign finance information. On Monday, the Senate is expected to take up the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, which would require unions, corporations, Super PACs and other groups to identify those who make political contributions of $10,000 or more.

Years ago, members of both parties supported such efforts to inform the electorate. But not in today's Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted in an op-ed for USA Today that the DISCLOSE Act is "an attempt to identify and punish political enemies, or at the very least, intimidate others from participating in the process -- an effort that's already underway."

I guess McConnell and others in the TMI camp wish you hadn't read those first two paragraphs.

Others believe the more information voters have, the better. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a usnews.com story: "I can't understand somebody's motivation in supporting secret money in campaigns. In Democracy, there should only be one secret thing, and that should be a voter's right to a secret ballot in an election."

How radical, really, is the DISCLOSE Act? Well, it passed 219-206 in the House in 2010 and was supported by 59 of 100 senators. But it was hoisted upon the spike of the filibuster, which is the same fate McConnell is promising this week for the 2012 version.

Flood warning!

The DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) Act is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision in 2010, allowing unions and corporations to shield "independent" donors. The group Common Cause reports that, because of Citizens United, a "flood of secret spending in the 2012 presidential primaries appears certain to grow into a tsunami by this fall."

And then this year, the Supreme Court struck down Montana's prohibition on independent spending by corporations. In Washington, thanks to our Public Disclosure Commission, our state has a good -- but not perfect -- record for making campaign-finance information available to voters. Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the commission, provided this explanation of the Montana ruling to The News Tribune of Tacoma: The ruling "has no impact in Washington state (where) laws have never set limits on corporate campaign spending. There are contribution limits, but Citizens United was about independent spending by corporations, not direct contributions."

Rather than a tsunami of secret campaign spending, I describe the voters' predicament as a triple whammy: Mega-donors wield clandestine power over elections, a few senators infatuated with the filibuster won't support the public's right to know, and the Supreme Court seems content to keep the Super PAC gusher flowing from concealed sources.

The voters' best (only) retaliation: Pay even less attention to campaign commercials this year.