This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

July 22, 2008

Carol Warren

Disclosure legislation helps; publicly financed campaigns better

If money equals speech, our democracy is really in trouble. The voices of the wealthy already have the power to drown out the expressed interests of the vast majority of more moderately situated citizens. All who desire genuine democracy should be grateful to Gov. Joe Manchin and our legislators for passing the revised disclosure legislation during the recent special session to keep secret money from having an unhealthy influence on our elections.

It's difficult to understand why there are groups of people who want to influence our state's policies and elections without identifying themselves. Why do they want their identity - and their money - to be kept secret? Is it because if we know who they are we will find their assertions less credible? Do they have biases so obvious we would all recognize their attempt to manipulate? Or perhaps most disturbing, would we discover the wealth of a few individuals being used to influence policy on numerous fronts?

Some say, "It's the right of individuals to use their money in whatever way they choose." Few of us would disagree. But if wealthy groups or individuals intend to use money to influence policies that affect all citizens, the people of the state have a right to know who is behind that money. This is what the disclosure bill is about - letting the people know, shining the light. Groups or individuals can still run ads blasting a candidate's character if they wish. The source of contributions paying for the ads must simply be disclosed to the Secretary of State's Office.

Others have said the disclosure law was aimed only at protecting certain candidates in the upcoming elections. Protecting candidates from anonymous mass mailings or advertisements that make claims about their character and fitness? Which of us would want to be placed in such a position with no knowledge of where the accusations originated or to whom to respond? If a credible group or individual has reasonable proof of wrongdoing by a public official, they should present the information openly for all to see. Keeping one's identity a secret does not lend credibility to such accusations; it casts doubt on them.

There is a solution to this debate about individuals and groups unfairly influencing our political campaigns: public campaign financing, or as it is known in the seven states and two cities that already have it, "clean elections."

Publicly financed candidates must agree not to accept private contributions from individuals or groups, and may not use their own money for the campaign. By adopting this voluntary system of public financing, we can end speculation about who is lurking in the shadows trying to influence West Virginia's elections and policy decisions. Without special-interest donations to influence the candidates, they are more accountable to the public. In addition, adopting clean elections can strengthen our democracy by allowing people from many backgrounds to run for office with a fair shot at being elected.

Warren, of Webster Springs, is a member of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections.

Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246