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Political Money: “Wisconsin Darkest of All the States”

Politics in Wisconsin is like the Wild West, according to a clean-government advocate. (CrackerClips/iStockphoto)
Politics in Wisconsin is like the Wild West, according to a clean-government advocate. (CrackerClips/iStockphoto)
October 12, 2016

MADISON, Wis. - Because of Wisconsin's status as a battleground state, political money is pouring into the coffers of both parties, much of it untraceable - or so-called "dark" - money.

Much of it is used to buy issue ads, which do not ask people to vote for a certain candidate but advocate a certain position. These ads, paid for with largely untraceable money, account for a significant percentage of campaign advertising. This bothers clean-government advocates such as Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Under a law passed last year, Wisconsin candidates now can coordinate ad buys with outside groups, which Heck called a big problem.

"That eviscerated Wisconsin's campaign finance laws, including meaningful disclosure," he said. "It means Wisconsin is the darkest of all the states in the country now, in terms of the money that citizens will be able to track."

The new law allows wealthy individuals or corporations to make anonymous or disguised political contributions through these dark-money groups. Heck said that means the public never will know who is influencing the decisions of public officials who were elected with dark money.

Wisconsin also distinguishes between political ads, which ask the viewer or listener to vote for a certain candidate, and issue ads, which advocate a position but don't directly ask for a vote for a certain candidate. Heck said this compounds the problem, allowing candidates to work with the people or organizations paying for the issue ads.

"In Wisconsin now, phony issue ads are exempted from any disclosure and anything goes," he said. "We are the Wild West of American politics, and there is no state in the country other than Florida that allows this kind of coordination."

According to Heck, this trend of coordination between candidates and organizations that pay for issue ads is a huge step backward.

"We used to be a state that had partial public financing. We had disclosure. We had both political parties and candidates of both parties willing to try to at least let people know where the money was coming from," Heck said, "and we've gone in exactly the opposite direction."

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI