Election reform needed

Our view: Tougher oversight of independent issue groups

May 12, 2008

An array of well-funded independent political organizations on the left and right are busy influencing voters' choices in national and local elections in this political year. In Maryland, the Fund for Growth, an anti-tax, anti-spend advocacy group, spent more than a million dollars in February's Republican primary helping state Sen. Andy Harris upset nine-term incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Such outside efforts, while legal, can make winning candidates beholden to hidden special interests. New election rules are needed to guard the interests of voters and candidates by requiring more transparency on the sources of funding for public issue ads run during the campaign season. It would also help to have independent assessments of the accuracy of advertising produced by these groups.

Independent political organizations with their frequently hidden sources of funds mushroomed after passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002. That law aimed to take "soft money," given with political intent but not to a particular candidate, out of the hands of the political parties. Independent, nonprofit tax-exempt groups such as the pro-Republican Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the liberal America Coming Together subsequently captured large quantities of soft money.

They and other groups reported spending more than $200 million on the 2006 elections and more than $440 million on the last presidential election, in 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Federal Election Commission's regulation of these groups has been so loose and lax that these independent groups flout the law by engaging directly in electoral politics and broadcasting so-called issue ads that really favor a particular candidate. Congress should pass new legislation requiring the FEC to get much tougher with such abuses.

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