Putting the squeeze on super PACs in Vermont
With all the campaign ads over, the take-home from this past election has largely been that super PACs in Vermont didn’t have the outsized electoral impact many expected.
But we can’t bet on that being the case next election. Just the opposite: Until we see major changes, the arrival of super PACs — courtesy of Citizens United — threatens to undermine spirited debates between candidates. Instead, unaccountable outside money will be in the campaign driver’s seat.
I’ve had the opportunity to work on local, statewide and presidential elections. They were hard fought, waged on the issues, and, by and large, candidate versus candidate, making for a discernible choice by voters. Super PACs threaten to undermine all that. They muddy the debate, confuse voters, and, unlike candidates, they are totally unaccountable to the public.
They create a situation where, regardless of political persuasion, we all stand to lose.
In Vermont, we’ve likely seen the first shot in an arms race of this type of spending. It could only get worse from here. Our candidates can no longer gauge how much cash outside groups will pump into their races and will be forced to raise even more money in self-defense. And individual voices of the average voter will be weakened in the process.
Our democracy is an ever-evolving project we must continue to perfect. Vermont, once a national leader in campaign finance reform, should renew this tradition by requiring aggressive transparency and disclosure for super PACs. Until we can change Citizens United at the federal level, our state leaders must step up.
Legislative leaders should convene hearings in January to develop creative nonpartisan solutions to address the transparency of super PACs and unaccountable outside spending. Among the reforms, election laws should be strengthened to require the full disclosure of all sizable donations to super PACs at frequent intervals and within 24 hours during the final weeks before Election Day.
If any contributor has given more than a third of the money collected by a single super PAC, they should be required to appear in broadcast advertisements standing behind the ads they are paying for as federal candidates are. At the very least, super PAC ads should be clearly identified. Similar disclosures should also be required for print and other advertising. Finally, our lawmakers should also draw on innovative solutions from other states.
Beyond disclosure regulations, voters also have leverage.
Vermonters should ask candidates whether they oppose Citizens United and will denounce and discourage super PAC spending from their campaign before signing any petition to put a candidate on the ballot. We know the impact of collective action by the electorate is huge.
While candidates cannot coordinate with super PACs, they can publicly communicate about their involvement. This fall Senator Vince Illuzzi denounced outside spending and publicly urged the super PAC Vermonters First to stay out. They ultimately did. Wendy Wilton welcomed them to her race, and the floodgates of money opened wide.
Nearby in the highly contested Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, the candidates imposed voluntary financial penalties for interference by outside groups, and asked broadcast station managers to help enforce the pledge. Thus, spending by outside groups risked bankrupting the campaign of the very candidate they supported. The effort wasn’t perfect, but it was largely successful.
The state’s political parties should also include in their platforms a renunciation of super PAC spending and judge their candidates accordingly.
Finally, at the federal level, Congress should pass the DISCLOSE Act, enhancing transparency requirements. The ultimate solution is a constitutional amendment that will return the power of campaign discourse back to the people and our democracy back to the voters.
Unfortunately, we must recognize we’ve only seen the beginning of super PACs in Vermont. Our obligation now is to add our mark to the democracy our parents and grandparents fought so hard to create by working to further improve it for our future.
Andrew Savage of Burlington is on the management team of AllEarth Renewables and was formerly deputy chief of staff to Rep. Peter Welch.