Reacting to an explosion in the use of so-called “independent expenditures” in Washington state — particularly in judicial races — the Public Disclosure Commission has asked the legislature to impose tougher restrictions on how PACs fund political campaigns. Not so fast, says the Seattle P-I editorial board:
Whoa. We have our own concerns about the distorting effects disproportionate amounts of money can have. The pursuit of large, centralized contributions can tend to draw candidates away from their individual constituents’ concerns.
But a citizen’s right to express support for a political candidate with cheers or checks seems pretty fundamental. So it could be that an increase in political spending is no more damaging to the process than an increase in political speech.
After all, some of the biggest spending didn’t pay off at the polls last month. John Groen’s noisy attempt to unseat Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander is the prime example.
I don’t take as much comfort from Groen’s defeat as the P-I does. The nasty, mean-spirited and ham-fisted Groen campaign reflected the character and personality of his primary patron — the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) — and it just didn’t go over well with voters. But while the BIAW may be a bunch of rude, cold-hearted bastards, they’re not stupid. And they’re loaded. That’s why they’ve been one of the most effective political organizations in the state over the past decade or so. Thus I fully expect them to learn their lesson from this year’s embarrassing defeat, and spend their money more wisely next time around.
With few exceptions the initiative process has become the exclusive playground of well-financed PACs and wealthy individuals, with measures often devised more as GOTV tools than serious attempts to legislate. And for all the relief over Groen’s defeat, Alexander still could have been overwhelmed if supporters hadn’t scraped together a sizable if lesser chunk of change to fight back in kind. Do we really want our Supreme Court justices chosen via a multimillion dollar game of campaign finance chicken?
The P-I concludes by saying that in a perfect world “public financing for all candidates would level the playing field,” but apparently dismisses such a reform as panglossian. I don’t.
It is time to learn whether public financing would indeed level the playing field, and our state Supreme Court races are the perfect place to start. Don’t just limit the amount of money special interests can spend on judicial candidates, eliminate it entirely. Our Supreme Court is too important to be jiggered by money coming from the right or the left; if it was encouraging that voters saw through the tsunami of cash that was intended to sweep Groen to victory, imagine what kind of jurists we might elect if we took money out of the equation altogether.
Otherwise, if we accept the notion that political money is political speech, and therefore should never be limited, then we implicitly accept an electoral system in which some people have the right to speak louder than others.