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Bringing transparency to Maryland elections

Bill awaiting governor's signature would force disclosure from outside groups

By Mimi Murray Digby Marziani

5:47 PM EDT, April 21, 2011

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As anyone from the Eastern Shore can attest, last year's race for Maryland's 1st Congressional District was hotly contested and very expensive. The contest between Andy Harris, who had the strong support of tea party groups, and Frank Kratovil, who had the backing of environmental organizations, spurred outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Defenders of Wildlife to spend more than $4 million to influence the outcome. But, due to gaping holes in federal disclosure laws, much of this independent spending was about as transparent as the Chesapeake Bay's muddy bottom. Marylanders were left to make sense of a barrage of TV and radio ads with little information about the special interests (some certainly from outside of the state) bankrolling these spending blitzes.

Dark money in politics poses a serious threat to our democracy. Lack of transparency increases the opportunities for corrupt, backroom dealings. Plus, when political actors are able to shield their identities, they cannot be held accountable by the public for their words or actions; as a result, groups may be tempted to run dishonest or particularly ugly campaign advertisements. Citizens are entitled to a full picture of where campaign money comes from and how it is spent — such information can greatly inform one's vote.

Given the importance of campaign finance disclosure, you might be dismayed to hear that Maryland's laws are some of the worst in the country.

For years, Maryland has not required independent spenders to publicly reveal anything about their efforts to influence state election results. Given voters' substantial interest in this information, it is no surprise that only five other states fail to require this type of reporting.

Happily, the Old Line State is on the verge of rising out of the gloom. A new bill, currently awaiting the governor's signature, seeks to bring clarity on the Chesapeake. This law, just passed by the legislature, would require independent groups to disclose their identity and their underlying donors when they spend more than $10,000 to influence candidate elections or ballot initiative elections.

One advantage of being a late bloomer: Maryland was able to learn from the experiences of other states and adopt their best practices. To start, the new bill requires full reporting of so-called "electioneering communications" — those typically negative ads that air right before an election and attack a candidate without expressly telling you to "vote against" him or her. And, the Maryland bill was carefully crafted for today's politics. Thus, independent spenders will also have to make campaign finance information readily available to voters by posting it on their websites. Plus, for the first time, many groups — including publicly-traded companies, labor unions and large nonprofit organizations — will have to expressly inform their shareholders and members of their political activity.

This is a big deal. Not only does this bill correct the deficiencies of current law, bringing Maryland up to standard, it propels the state to the vanguard by requiring direct reporting to shareholders and group members. This innovation is widely regarded as a key policy, but Maryland is leading other states that need to modernize their laws in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision — the one that allowed unlimited, independent corporate political spending.

What would Maryland's new law look like in practice? Here's one example.

Maryland also recently passed a state-wide version of the DREAM Act, which would allow certain undocumented students who have graduated from public high schools the chance to qualify for in-state tuition benefits at local community colleges and eventually four-year universities. Opponents are already seeking a referendum to give Maryland voters the chance to approve or reject this legislation at the polls in the next election. Such a ballot initiative would undoubtedly attract the attention of myriad outside groups both for and against the program — just like Maryland's 1st Congressional District race.

No matter how you personally feel about the DREAM Act as a matter of policy, you should feel entitled to know the identities of those seeking to influence your state's electoral results. Without demanding transparent spending, there is no way to know who is actually behind groups with names like "American Majority Action" or "CitizenLink." (These esoteric names are not made up; both of these groups spent tens of thousands of dollars to influence the Harris-Kratovil race without disclosing their underlying donors).

Now, to become law, this new transparency bill just needs Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature. Clearly, for the sake of Maryland's voters — and the state's electoral integrity — he should sign it without delay.

Mimi Murray Digby Marziani, a Maryland native, serves as counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Her e-mail is mimi.marziani@nyu.edu.