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Hanna: Citizens United Decision

02/05/10 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) In the last few weeks, there’s been much discussion about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Citizens United.  Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna offers some thoughts about where we might go next.

(HANNA) Reasonable, well-intentioned people can disagree about the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which gives corporations, labor unions, and non-profits the same free speech rights as individuals.

Some see this case a big win for the First Amendment, while others worry that our electoral system will become even more corrupt and controlled by special interests. I’ll let you be the judge on that.

But there is one thing that both sides should agree on: if we really care about participatory democracy, then voters need information about who is spending what - immediately.  

And here is where Vermont has the potential to be a real leader in providing voters transparency in electoral politics.

Currently, Vermont does not have any laws directly regulating corporate speech; and, indeed, given that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s campaign finance law a few years ago, it’s debatable whether we actually have any campaign finance law in effect at all.

But even if Vermont’s current law is in effect, or everyone is simply acting as if it were, it doesn’t go far enough in providing voters with easy-to-access information.

First, we need an updated disclosure law, so if a corporation, labor union, or non-profit runs an ad, the viewer knows who paid for it.  As with candidates, we need to make sure viewers see and hear: "Company X paid for this ad."

The Court clearly upheld this provision of the law, recognizing that voters need to know who's behind a particular political message in order for the First Amendment to work as it was intended.

Even more importantly, Vermonters should require immediate disclosure of any campaign contributions and expenditures within 24 hours of accepting a contribution or making an expenditure.

The state should require this from all candidates, corporations, and political action committees.  With modern technology, it's hardly burdensome to post this information directly to the internet in an easy-to-search database.  

Indeed, modern technology has the potential to transform democracy so average voters have immediate access to information.

That way, if Corporation X spends $2000 on an ad, or Candidate X accepts $2000 from an individual or union, voters and the press will know almost instantaneously.  Newt Gingrich has been touting this idea just as aggressively as have been more liberal advocacy groups.

Currently, it’s almost impossible to find out whose money is flowing in state campaigns; and, according to the Secretary of State’s website, the next time a candidate or lobbyist is required to disclose contributions or expenditures is August 5th!  That's far too long for voters to wait to have the necessary information to decide if money is improperly influencing candidates.

So, no matter where you stand on the decision, Vermont can become the first state where voters aren’t kept in the dark about money in politics.  Indeed, the motto for lawmakers this year ought to be: "Let the sun shine in."
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