Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Sun editorial:

Championing transparency

Open government is good government, and it starts with elections

Secretary of State Ross Miller has found himself oddly under fire for aggressively upholding campaign disclosure laws, odd because some of his critics are self-professed champions of government transparency.

Miller, a Democrat, has been targeted for suing the Republican-aligned Alliance for America’s Future, a Virginia group that refused to register as a political action committee despite buying nearly $200,000 in political ads in 2010 supporting Brian Sandoval’s campaign for governor.

A District Court judge in Carson City agreed with Miller, fining the group $109,560 and ordering it to register as a political action committee. The group appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court but dropped the appeal last month, settling with Miller’s office. In the settlement, the group agreed to register as a political action committee, file campaign disclosure reports and pay a fine of $40,000.

That’s the largest fine imposed on a political group in state history, yet despite his good work, Miller is being attacked for it. His conservative critics have assigned political motives to Miller and claimed he is undercutting free speech in the process.

We would think Miller’s critics, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial page, which has championed open-government initiatives, would see this for what it is: a win for transparency and fairness in campaigns.

Unfortunately, they’ve settled on a political narrative that, by focusing on conservative vs. liberal, misses the point.

Strip away the politics and look at the facts. Nevada law requires political groups that run political ads to file with the secretary of state and disclose their donors. In the 2010 campaign, this out-of-state group comes in and runs ads that look and sound like campaign ads, championing a candidate and his credentials. But the group doesn’t want to register or disclose its donors. It argues the law doesn’t apply to it because it’s a nonprofit and, under the law, it wasn’t trying to influence the election because it didn’t expressly tell voters whom to vote for.

Yes, try to swallow that one. A group runs its ad supporting one candidate 320 times but doesn’t want to influence voters?

Do these political operatives from the Washington, D.C., area think Nevadans are rubes who were born yesterday?

Miller’s critics apparently think we all are. The irony is that when the Alliance for America’s Future filed its documents, it had but one donor, a political group: the Republican Governor’s Public Policy Committee, based in Washington. That group wasn’t trying to influence voters, now, was it?

Again, this isn’t a matter of conservative or liberal. The group had every right to air an ad supporting Sandoval. This, however, is a matter of disclosure.

We’ve heard conservative groups in the past complain about big liberal donors (George Soros, anyone?) and their influence behind the scenes. And we agree — the public should know who’s paying for political campaigns.

For supporters of transparency and open government, this is a no-brainer. Miller did what he was supposed to do: enforce the law and provide transparency.

It’s notable that in this case, the Alliance for America’s Future tried to hide behind a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says groups that don’t “expressly advocate” for a candidate are not subject to campaign laws. The way the court’s decision, dating from 1976, is interpreted is that as long as an ad doesn’t use words such as “vote for” or “vote against,” it’s not express advocacy.

In today’s sophisticated media market, flooded by millions of dollars in spending from advocacy groups, that’s ridiculous. Groups such as the Alliance for America’s Future argue that they are only educating voters, but that’s nonsense. Why would any group spend hundreds of thousands of dollars during a political campaign to “educate” voters if it didn’t want to influence them?

They wouldn’t. It was clear this was a political ad in support of a candidate.

The issue of disclosure is important because the groups and people who put their money behind a candidate will have access once the candidate wins office. If the public doesn’t know who is supporting a candidate’s campaign, it creates room for corruption and back-room deals.

As such, Miller’s efforts to bring more transparency to campaigns should be applauded. They are good for the public, good for elections and good for government.

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