I hate to sound melodramatic, but our form of democracy in the United States has a serious problem.

That problem has to do with how we fund campaigns — specifically, with loopholes regarding the disclosure of the donors behind advertisements.

Much recent furor among journalists and activists has focused on the lack of limitations on political spending — exemplified by the Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which struck down spending limits of outside interest groups.

I have problems with the sheer amount of money spent in American political campaigns — I’d prefer publicly financed campaigns with strict spending limits. But the immediate problem is with disturbing developments in campaign finance disclosure rules, which drastically hurt the ability of the average voter to hold leaders accountable.

American voters are generally ignorant, as 1950s scholars, led by the University’s Philip Converse, discovered to their surprise. Americans generally can’t even identify major political figures like Supreme Court justices or the Speaker of the House, let alone explain complicated policy ideas like health care reform.

But if citizens can’t understand public policy, how can they make intelligent electoral decisions? In the 1990s, another University scholar, Arthur “Skip” Lupia, suggested that voters could read cues in the campaign environment to make decisions.

In a pair of American Political Science Review articles published in 1992 and 1994, Lupia defended voter intelligence. He claimed it was highly unlikely for voters to have the time or inclination to understand the details of everything they might have to cast a ballot for. To prove his point, Lupia cited the example the several hundred pages of information that explained Calfornia’s notoriously complex ballots.

But he thought that if voters knew who backed the initiatives, they would have a good chance of making the “right” decision by using the identity of sponsors as a cue to which way they should vote. To test his theory, Lupia used exit poll data to analyze how voters voted on five different highly technical initiatives reforming California’s automotive insurance system in 1988. He figured that voters, as car owners, would want to vote against proposals backed by the automotive insurance providers. His hunch held up — voters who knew about the automotive insurance industry’s position tended to back the measures opposed by the automotive insurers and vote against measures supported by the insurers at higher levels than voters who didn’t realize the insurance industry was backing certain reforms.

In short, with just a bit of information, voters can vote for their personal interests, which is a central part of making democracy work.

Of course, many unpopular groups try to hide their identities by donating to political action committees or advocacy organizations with generic name (think Americans for Prosperity) or ones that are flat-out misleading (coal companies funding a group with an environmentally-friendly sounding name).

That’s where disclosure laws come in — as long as laws force advertisements to mention their sponsors and make shadowy advocacy groups disclose their donors, voters can fairly easily get information about issue sponsorship and make their decisions accordingly.

But now, corporations and other (usually conservative) groups have found a way to skirt the problem that stems from using the current law. Two sections of tax law — 501 (c) 4 and 501 (c) 6 — allow the formation of types of non-profit organizations to only report their donors to the IRS and not the public. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. There’s really no compelling reason why the public needs to know who’s funding a group that’s trying to fix the park or supporting a battered women’s shelter.

But the problem is that many of these groups are political. By law, they aren’t supposed to engage primarily in political activity, but as Slate magazine’s Richard Hasen has pointed out, the language defining “primary purpose” is vague, and it takes at least a calendar year to determine whether spending patterns match a group’s putatively non-political purpose.

That gives groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS the ability to pour tens of millions of dollars into political advertising in this election cycle without disclosing big-pocketed donors. Even if the Federal Elections Commission cracks down, it will be after the November election.

In the meantime, corporations shield their identities and voters lose sight of the most critical piece of information they use to make voting decisions — the knowledge of who is really behind a campaign.

And with voters blinded, a central tenant of democracy collapses — which is a tragedy, not a melodrama.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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