So Called “Issue Ads” Chip Away at Democracy

by Mike McCabe, Communications Director

January 11, 2000

Brace yourself.

Unless the legislature and the governor act in the early days of the new year, the 2000 election campaigns promise to be the most expensive ever and some of the dirtiest in memory. Thanks to the growing phenomenon of so-called "issue ads," voters will know less than ever about who is writing the slanderous scripts and who is paying for the airtime.

Issue ads are anything but. They do not meaningfully discuss issues or educate voters; their plain purpose is to elect or defeat candidates. To the average viewer they are indistinguishable from other political ads. If anything, they might be even more devoid of substance and more negative than the ads the candidates pay for.

But the special interest groups running this sham have squeezed through a loophole in the law regulating political advertising in order to escape disclosure requirements. By carefully avoiding the use of words like "vote for" or "vote against" in their ads, they claim immunity from the rules all other participants in the democratic process have to obey. Then they shamelessly invoke the First Amendment to justify operating under a cloak of secrecy.

If avoiding the use of certain magic words is all it takes to be freed from any obligation to play by the rules, how can we expect candidates to disclose who’s paying for their campaigns? They rarely if ever use words like "vote for" or "vote against" in their literature and ads. There’s no need. When politicians extol their virtues and then for good measure tell you why their opponent is a scoundrel, it’s plenty clear they want your vote. Couldn't all the candidates just claim to be running "issue ads" to sidestep the uncomfortable duty of revealing who is bankrolling their campaigns?

Even setting aside that slippery slope, reasons abound why permitting these phony issue ads to be wrapped in the First Amendment does all kinds of harm.

First and foremost, voters are entitled to know who is trying to influence whom and how much is being spent to gain that political leverage. Special interests use issue ads not to exercise free speech, but rather to speak anonymously and to spend unaccountably. Hiding behind the First Amendment in order to withhold essential information from the public is an act of desecration.

Moreover, when private interests are allowed to conceal the source of money used to pay for issue ads, they then can thumb their noses at Wisconsin’s century-old ban on corporate contributions in election campaigns. Issue ads have opened the door to the reintroduction of corporate money into our elections, breeding disrespect for longstanding election laws and ultimately undermining one of the most important political reforms of the Progressive Era.

Most troubling of all is the extent to which issue ads demean and devalue the First Amendment by turning it into a mere commodity to be bought and sold. Private groups with deep pockets can turn the essential dialogue between voters and candidates into a special interest monologue, mortally wounding the democratic process.

As the First Amendment is commercialized, political participation becomes less a right and more a privilege that must be purchased. And "free speech" becomes anything but.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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