Court Rules Some Anonymous Campaign Donors Must Be Revealed

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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse discusses one of the proposed solutions to the problem of anonymous campaign contributions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to grant a stay on an earlier decision that told the Federal Election Commission that the secret donors behind millions of dollars of electioneering communications must be revealed. The court rejected the request for a stay on a 2-1 vote and ordered that the full appeal go forward in the fall.

At issue is the ability of tax-exempt groups that run political ads within two months of the general election — or within one month of a primary — to keep secret the names of their donors. Such groups spent some $80 million in the 2010 congressional elections, primarily supporting conservative candidates or attacking their opponents. The donors behind less than 10 percent of that amount were ever disclosed.

"It's a very important victory in the battle to end the secret contributions that are currently being funneled into federal elections," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, the liberal group that worked with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to sue the FEC.

The ruling applies specifically to so-called electioneering communications. Not addressed were nonprofit groups that make what are called "independent expenditures" in campaigns. Those are covered in a different section of campaign finance law.

Wertheimer says his group is contemplating a second lawsuit seeking to disclose the donors who finance those forms of ads as well.

If this ruling stands up to the appeal, it could go a long way to making elections at least more transparent. It won't deal with the real problem, which is the unlimited spending in campaigns, but at least we'll know who is buying the elections. While we know that people like the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove spent millions to purchase elections in 2010, there is a lot more spending from that cycle that we don't know about. That's no way to run democratic elections.


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