After years of essentially ignoring the corrosive influence of secret money on political campaigns, there are suddenly two legitimate efforts to pull back the campaign finance curtain.
Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson is working hard to sell her Secure and Fair Elections initiative, which she said is an effort to ensure that Michigan elections are as secure and fair as possible.
At the same time a group called the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force, which formed in late 2010, has issued a report containing seven recommendations, with proposed legislation, to make Supreme Court races less partisan and more transparent.
The task force’s top aim is to force Supreme Court campaigns to fully disclose their funding sources. The group also wants a registry identifying people and groups that create and fund campaign messages, including so-called “issue ads” by interest groups.
There is no doubt both efforts are needed; there’s also no doubt Johnson’s needs more teeth. She acknowledged the state must move toward full disclosure in all political campaigns and said that’s an eventual goal, though it’s not part of the SAFE initiative. Her staff is researching if recent court decisions will allow her to require disclosure of issue ads under current state law; she said she would act if she has the authority.
Part of Johnson’s initiative will require quarterly reporting of contributions and expenditures by candidate and political action committees every year, she said. Currently, candidates only have to file one report in non-election years. That’s a step forward.
Twelve bills that are part of the SAFE package have passed the House or the Senate or are being taken up by various committees. How they eventually fare is yet to be seen.
The fight over Supreme Court reforms will likely be a war, in
part because so many influential players like the status quo. The task force report says that in the 1990s, a jaw-dropping 86 percent of Supreme Court cases involved contributors to the justices’ campaigns.
While the public strongly backs full disclosure — 96 percent of Michigan voters — political parties never have.
The nominating process is next. In Michigan, judges are nominated by the political parties but run “non-partisan” campaigns. It’s a sham. In 2010, the Republican and Democratic parties spent $5.5 million on Supreme Court races, compared to the $2.3 million spent by the candidates themselves. The task force wants non-partisan primaries instead.
Michigan’s top court is widely considered one of the nation’s worst, fed by secret money and extreme partisanship. If the task force report doesn’t produce change, it will only get worse.
— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE