A U.S. Supreme Court ruling released Thursday could unleash millions of additional corporate dollars aimed at influencing federal elections.
The ruling, which removes restrictions from corporate spending — and, presumably, spending by labor unions and other groups — on independent ads, applies only to federal elections, but it still highlights efforts in Kansas to make sure that voters at least know who is giving the money to support so-called “issue” advertising related to elections.
Political observers note that the federal ruling may have an impact on at least one Kansas Senate race this year. The Republican primary pits two sitting Kansas congressmen, Rep. Jerry Moran and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, against one another. National groups or corporations hoping to influence the race between the two candidates — one with conservative credentials (Tiahrt) and one who is more moderate (Moran) — now have free rein to produce and pay for their own campaign advertising. The ads are not financed or coordinated through the campaigns, but they can espouse a clear candidate preference.
The court’s ruling worries many citizens for a couple of reasons. Many voters already are concerned about how beholden many members of Congress are to the people who pour large amounts of money into their campaigns. The ruling throws that door wide open.
It’s also ironic that the well-funded messages of corporate entities can, and often do, drown out the voices of the candidates themselves. Voters should be casting their ballots based on the candidates’ agendas, not the agenda of whatever corporate entity wants to build them up or tear them down.
The federal ruling doesn’t affect Kansas elections for offices from the governor on down. Kansas already allows independent and “issue” advertising in state races. However, the state still lacks a reporting requirement for individuals and groups who pay for issue ads.
Although issue ads don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate, there usually is little doubt whom the ad supports. However, there is no requirement for the names of the people paying for those ads to be made public. A bill adding such a requirement was introduced Wednesday in the Kansas Legislature with the backing of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
People who oppose campaign financing or reporting laws often cite their First Amendment rights to free speech. Reporting laws don’t infringe on their right to say what they want, but they do require them to stand behind what they say. When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, people usually voiced their opinions in their own identified publications or before a public audience that could readily identify the speaker and any agenda that might be behind his or her remarks. Modern mass media makes it easier to hide behind political action committees and other groups with ambiguous names.
Measures on financial reporting for issue advertising have been rejected before by Kansas legislators. They should rethink that stand. Given the potential influence issue advertising can have on state elections, it is only fair to let Kansas voters know who is paying for that influence.