Hope springs eternal for election reformers

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project Director.

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In preparing for a recent interview in which he knew he’d be asked about tilting at windmills, Mike McCabe crafted a T-shirt-worthy reply: “To me, there’s always reason for hope, and never much reason for optimism.”

McCabe leads the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which joined with the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group in drafting a July 10 letter calling for legislative hearings and possibly a special session to tweak state elections law.

Besides WISPIRG and the Democracy Campaign, 18 other groups signed on, including the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and the Sierra Club. They urge the Legislature to:

1) Require disclosure of all spending sources in state elections.
2) Close the loophole that lets officials targeted for recall raise unlimited amounts.
3) Insist that corporations get shareholder permission before spending on political campaigns.
4) Make broadcast outlets and newspapers post online records of campaign ad buys.
5) Create an independent, nonpartisan body to oversee the redrawing of voter boundaries.

These may strike some people as reasonable changes. But state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, sees no chance of them passing the Assembly. He pegs the signatories as being “all on the left end of the political spectrum” and calls their motives into question.

“It is not surprising that groups on the left want to change the rules because they have not been able to succeed under the current system,” says Vos, likely the next Assembly speaker if Republicans retain their substantial majority in the fall elections.

Vos opposes making it impossible to anonymously fund groups that weigh in on campaigns, citing the blowback some donors have received. But he does back letting political parties, which disclose funding sources, play a larger role in campaigns, by raising donation limits and removing other constraints.

“Right now, the corporations can only give through one of these third-party entities,” Vos says.

Noting that stockholders already elect boards to make decisions, Vos doesn’t see the need for additional stockholder input. Nor does he think government should require media outlets to post ad buy info online, to make it easier for “political insiders” to cull this information. And Vos opposes turning the redistricting process over to “people who are not elected and not accountable.”

Vos is open to ending the ability of recall targets to raise unlimited funds — but only if future recalls require “some sort of malfeasance in office,” a pairing he says Democrats have rejected. McCabe says changing the recall rules would take a state constitutional amendment, a multi-year process, while closing the fundraising loophole could be done “tomorrow.”

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, the state Senate’s newly re-elected president, calls the proposed changes “excellent ideas” and believes Senate Dems may hold hearings on some or all of them. But going back into session will require action by the governor or agreement by the Assembly, and “that’s not going to happen.”

So why is McCabe hopeful?

Wisconsin, he says, “has a long history of messing up and then righting our wrongs.” And calls for greater disclosure by campaign donors have gotten some GOP support. For instance, state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, cosponsored a bill last session to regulate “issue ads.” It went nowhere.

McCabe sees the push for reforms as a challenge, especially to the Democrats, who control the state Senate, apparently at least through the November elections. “They have a chance to show that they deserve that majority, that they stand for something.”

But McCabe notes that in the 2009-10 session, when Democrats controlled both houses, bills to regulate issue ads and require shareholder approval for corporate campaign spending passed the Senate but died in the Assembly. So he’s not optimistic.

Risser agrees “the Democrats failed” when they didn’t pass these bills, adding, “We won’t make that mistake again.” They may not get the chance.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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