May 26, 2010

Shine a light on attack ad buyers

By Times Wire

Florida voters will not have a fighting chance against an onslaught of attack ads this campaign season if shadowy third-party political groups that spend unlimited amounts of money can avoid disclosing before the election who is financing their attacks. Gov. Charlie Crist needs to sign into law HB 131, which would force the groups back into to the sunshine.

Under the bill, special interest groups seeking to influence state and local elections would have to file regular financial disclosure reports throughout the election season, just like political parties, candidates and other political committees. Under current law, the so-called 527 groups, named after a section of the federal tax code, are only required to file federal disclosures after an election. But transparency during a campaign is essential, particularly since many of these faceless groups have such innocuous names that no voter can determine their motivations.

Last year, a federal judge overturned Florida's earlier disclosure requirements for 527s, saying lawmakers were infringing on free speech and had cast too wide a net in defining which groups must register with the state. HB 131 narrows that window considerably by requiring registration only of groups spending more than $5,000 on communications that support or oppose a candidate within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.

After the judge's ruling, Florida got a glimpse of what a lack of disclosure could portend. A 2009 special election for a North Florida state Senate seat disintegrated into race-baiting fliers. Representatives of the Florida trial bar finally admitted to financing the campaign against the eventual winner, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, but voters on Election Day did not know who should have been held accountable. They had to cast their ballots without essential information.

HB 131 was this year's vehicle for all election law changes, including provisions to increase ballot access for overseas military voters. There also is a four-year delay of a requirement that Florida's counties purchase enhanced voting equipment for disabled voters that would convert their votes on touch screen machines into physical paper ballots. Most of the state's counties sought the delay, arguing they did not have money to buy the machines and believed improved technology was just around the corner. Advocates for disabled voters are split on the issue.

But a technical problem that could be corrected in the future should not trump a more fundamental issue of transparency. Crist should sign HB 131 to ensure that when Florida is deluged later this year with third-party attack ads, voters have a reasonable chance of learning who is trying to influence their decision by slinging mud.

[iCopyright] 2010 St. Petersburg Times.

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