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WV Swimming Against Big-Money Citizens United Tide

PHOTO: Since the Citizens United decision five years ago, West Virginia has been among the states swimming against the big-money political tide. Photo by DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile.com
PHOTO: Since the Citizens United decision five years ago, West Virginia has been among the states swimming against the big-money political tide. Photo by DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile.com
January 22, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In the five years since the Citizens United decision, West Virginia lawmakers have attempted to slow the influence of big anonymous political donations. But good government groups say the state has hardly been immune.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, as much as a quarter of the ads in last year's most contested Senate races nationally came from big outside groups that hid their donors. The Citizens United decision permitted this by protecting the donations as a form of free speech. Julie Archer is project manager with the Citizens For Clean Elections Coalition.

"The First Amendment protects free speech," she says. "But it was never intended to protect anonymous secret political speech and to keep political actors from being held accountable for their actions."

Archer says West Virginia and some other states have responded by trying to increase disclosure requirements, but she admits that's had limited impact. Citizens United was decided five years ago this week.

According to a new report from the nonpartisan group Common Cause, the big anonymous donations have given millionaires and billionaires greater influence over elections. And it found they had more impact on issues that range from minimum wage and gun control to climate change and having an open Internet. Compared with this, Archer says disclosure and state regulations can do very little.

"Disclosure is where states can really have an impact on all of the money going into the political process," she says. "Those are great, but they only go so far."

Another area where West Virginia has been swimming against the big-money tide is in judicial elections. Archer says nearly $14 million was spent on TV ads for state Supreme Court races during the 2014 midterm elections, shattering the previous record.

The judges might be taking donations from people involved in cases that could come before the court. Archer says that helped motivate lawmakers here to take a step that put West Virginia in the national forefront providing public financing for judicial races.

"One of our sitting justices, Allen Loughry, was elected using that program," says Archer. "Because of the success of the program, the following year the Legislature made that a permanent program."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV