Today, our State Assembly votes on legislation to both dismantle Wisconsin's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB), and significantly expand the corrupting influence of out-of-state, secret cash in our elections. The State Senate is expected to do the same next week.
If passed and later signed into law by Governor Walker, these two measures will most assuredly "wreak havoc" on democracy in Wisconsin. Assembly Bill 388 decimates the GAB – the agency that ensures we have clean, fair elections, while enforcing our campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. AB 388 scraps the current GAB, replacing it with two separate commissions: one focusing on ethics, the other on elections.
And the board's nonpartisan judges? Gone!
Instead, these two agencies will each consist of six partisan, political appointments – three Republicans and three Democrats.
Hmmm... sounds like a recipe for deadlock.
Well… the GOP Leadership did say that the model for their "new and improved" GAB was the Federal Election Commission – an agency that, by its chair's own admission, is both dysfunctional and deadlocked.
What about the GAB's independent funding source for investigations into political corruption? Gone!
Instead, the new "toothless" GAB will have to go to the legislature for approval of funds needed to investigate legislators.
Assembly Bill 387. A total re-write of Wisconsin's campaign finance law that, among other things, legalizes the formerly illegal campaign coordination between a candidate and "so-called" issue advocacy groups. You know, those groups with names like "People for a Better Tomorrow" who run (phony) issue ads, like "Candidate 'A' hates Wisconsin Cheese! Call Candidate 'A' and tell her to stop hating our cheese!"
They don't ever say "Vote for Candidate 'B'" or "against Candidate 'A.'" But you get their meaning.
Why do these groups have to be so cagey about their real agenda?
Because keeping away from the vote for/vote against-type language allows them to qualify as an "issue ad" group.
And what's so special about being an issue ad group?
By advocating for an issue while depicting a candidate (rather than advocating directly for a candidate), these folks have no limits on the money they can spend trying to influence an electionand no requirement to disclose where their money comes from.
And this is exactly what makes AB 387 so frightening.
This legislation will let candidates – who do have campaign contribution limits and donor disclosure requirements – work side-by-side with issue ad groups in order to get elected, essentially giving candidates access to unlimited campaign cash, while keeping the public in the dark about who is influencing both our elections and (subsequently) our elected officials.
So how do we fight back against this seemingly insurmountable wave of unregulated money and influence?
First. Don't lose heart. There are some Republicans in the State Senate who are not on board with the GAB overhaul bill.
So contact your legislators and tell them how you feel about this. Be passionate. Be heard.
Next, make sure you – and every eligible voter you know – is registered to vote and has one of the required forms of photo ID to cast a ballot.
And then – come election time (presidential or not) – vote.
If we want to save our democracy, this is how it's done.
Sandra Miller is Director of Information Services and Outreach for Common Cause in Wisconsin