Disclosure Isn’t Complicated. Why Are We So Bad At It?

In Politico this morning, reporter Ken Vogel makes this disturbing observation about the state of transparency and disclosure in U.S. elections:

“Big-money outside groups have spent more than $143 million in the presidential race in the six months since any of them were required to reveal their donors… The origins of some of that cash will never be revealed, while the rest of it won’t become known until midnight on Jan. 31 ― meaning that voters won’t know who funded the majority of the ads in the presidential race until just hours before Iowa voters head to their state’s pivotal caucuses.”

To be clear, this is not how a modern democracy should operate. It’s not enough to say that, in theory, voters can see who’s funding campaigns and super PACs. Because in practice, voters have been completely, utterly left in the dark.

This is problem that can be fixed. In fact, it’s a problem that’s easy to fix, in the sense that the solutions don’t require upending industry or peoples lives. Disclosure isn’t complicated, all we need is good, old-fashioned, political will.  

To ensure that everyone knows who’s spending what in each election we need 1) timely online disclosure of political spending (of the sort that Justice Kennedy envisioned when he penned the Citizens United decision), and 2) someone to enforce the law (looking at you Federal Election Commission). That’s it.

We live in the era where the whole of the knowledge of mankind is always at our fingertips (hello Google), where we can print in 3D, and soon, we’ll have self-driving cars. Surely we can muster technical know-how to put files online in a timely fashion.

Many state disclosure regimes are light years ahead of the FEC (we profiled a few in our Blueprints for Democracy project) proving that we’re not chasing a unicorn here. Washington state makes campaign finance data searchable, downloadable and will even create charts for you. If it can be done in Washington state, why not in Washington, D.C.?

Americans on both sides of the aisle believe that our elections should be, at the very least, transparent. In fact, disclosure is a point of rare point of consensus our polarized political system.

We might be living in the 21st century, but somewhere along the way we left democracy behind.