CHARLESTON – A bill that would enlarge the kinds of communication that count as electioneering, and are therefore subject to disclosure of donors, received a nod from the House Judiciary Committee this week.
Senate Bill 604, sponsored by Senate President Jeff Kessler, would add the use of billboard, direct mailing and telephone bank communications to endorse or oppose candidates during election season to the category of electioneering communications, requiring that the names of donors who paid for the ads be publicly disclosed. This would mean they would be regulated in the same fashion as television and print advertising.
Delegate Stephen Skinner said the bill restores some transparency. “If people seek to influence elections in the state of West Virginia, they need to disclose who they are,” Skinner said.
In a followup interview, Skinner said the change would prevent organizations from hiding behind a nonprofit status to keep the people who are funding them secret.
“That is part of what happened in the past,” he said. “A group will form a 501(c)3, and that hides all of the contributions. So you might have one really rich donor or big corporation fund the entire campaign and say, ‘Well, we are a nonprofit, so we don’t have to disclose what we are doing.’ Clearly, what they are doing is try to circumvent campaign disclosure laws.”
“This is closing that giant loophole,” he said.
Kanawha Republicans John B. McCuskey and Patrick Lane spoke in opposition to the policy.
“This bill furthers the general bad policy that we need to know every expenditure that every person makes,” McCuskey argued. “There is a significant right, specifically within the campaign arena, to donate money. That right comes with the significant liability of having your name disclosed. I think people have a right to donate money to groups that they wish to support, particularly at times of the year when there is not any electioneering communication to be done, and not have their names disclosed.”
“I’m not so concerned with the rich coal baron,” said Lane, alluding to former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who funded a multimillion dollar electioneering campaign in the mid-2000s. “I’m concerned with the many people who donate to the small advocacy groups that we all support.”
“Since 1958, when the NAACP sued the state of Alabama, membership lists have been excluded from disclosure. This is, in my mind, a back door way to get to the donors to the organizations,” Lane said.
Skinner said these arguments were merely obscuring the issue. “The reality is that if a group wants to hide their donors, or segregate and protect their membership, then they need to form a PAC, which is perfectly legal.”
“Legitimate organizations can form a PAC and do their political actions that way. They will not try to hide the sources of the money,” he said. “What we saw was a defense of secret money.”
Skinner said the increased use of direct mailing advertisements and robocalls make it important for voters to have full disclosure of the individuals spending money to influence their decisions.
Four Republicans crossed party lines and voted with Democrats in favor of the measure.