EDITORIAL: Want to play? Do it in daylight

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In the campaign cash wars, the winner should be public’s right to know.

NO ONE SHOULD expect U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa’s order to stop the Wisconsin John Doe investigation into campaign finances to be the final word.

That’s not how it works in Wisconsin anymore. The legal battles go on and on and on, whether it’s over Act 10; redistricting; abortion rules; Voter ID; or, in this case, an investigation of political practices.

Whether or not the common folks are gaining anything from all this is highly debatable.

But Wisconsin politics clearly has become a gold mine for lawyers.

WE WILL GLADLY let the John Doe play out in court, as we have the other dueling-lawyer matters. Eventually, this latest legal battle likely will wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court because it raises so many intriguing constitutional questions — from whether in this situation dollars equal speech, to whether the state can investigate ties and practices without infringing on free-speech rights of political advocates, to whether a federal judge oversteps when he orders state prosecutors to halt an investigation under state law.

Instead we will focus on a chilling remark from Judge Randa in his written decision: “The (Wisconsin Club for Growth and its treasurer) have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted. Instead, it should be recognized as promoting political speech, an activity that is ingrained in our culture.”

In other words, by forming a theoretically arms-length advocacy group and avoiding the magic words like “vote for” or “vote against” in messages, these organizations manage to just skate around the edges of legality in a way that flouts the spirit, but not the letter, of the law.

Judge Randa seems to praise such cleverness. We’re not so sure a cheer should be raised when some outfit schemes a way around the law.

YET THAT’S HOW elections are won and lost — a better choice of words would be, bought and sold — in America today.

When candidates raise money themselves they are subject to some limitations and reporting requirements. Political parties also experience scrutiny.

But shadowy so-called “independent” groups like the Wisconsin Club for Growth — a conservative group, so let’s be equal opportunity and call out, say, Organizing for America, an Obama advocacy outfit — rake in dough with both arms while keeping donors a blackout secret.

Often, big-money donors want that secrecy. Some just don’t want the publicity, or they don’t want to be hounded by every other candidate or cause trolling for cash. Others want to avoid any potential backlash from political opponents who might, for example, stage boycotts of a business owned by a big donor.

These are not frivolous concerns. We get it.

BUT HERE’S OUR TAKE. Nothing is more public than politics. By its very nature, politics is all about influencing and controlling the public agenda and government policy. We would argue that financing political campaigns is an inherently public act, performed for the purpose of setting the agenda and directing the exercise of government power.

Secrecy ought to be offensive in the public arena. Those who set out to influence the agenda and elect candidates to capture the halls of power should not be able to do so from deep cover. Where the money comes from is part of the story, and potentially decisive for some people as they consider how to exercise that most precious American right — to vote.

So we will repeat our oft-stated stand: Let the money flow; it buys political speech, and free speech is a cherished principle. But stop this charade with “independent” advocacy and require absolute full disclosure of all donors seeking to influence the government agenda. If you want to play in the public arena, do so in the daylight.

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