Over the last few months there has been a robust debate — both in the Legislature and in these pages — about Minnesota elections and the reforms we passed this year. This is exactly what the First Amendment should foster in our democracy — transparent, factual and inclusive debates about issues of public concern. And for those debates to carry weight in our democracy, it is critical that Minnesotans know who is speaking and who is spending money to influence their opinions.
We must ensure that voters, not well-funded dark money groups, are at the center of our elections and driving the political conversation. That is exactly what the Democracy for the People Act's transparency provisions are designed to do. Far from chilling political speech, as Annette Meeks and Eric Wang warn in their June 5 commentary "Minnesota climate turns chilly for free speech," this transparency law enhances political speech by informing the electorate about who is spending on the political communications designed to influence our elections and decisionmaking.
In fact, the "express advocacy" provision is well-established law for more than two decades at the federal level and in dozens of other states. It closes a loophole that currently allows cleverly crafted political ads to evade campaign disclosure laws. Closing this loophole will ensure Minnesotans know about the large sums of spending on political advertising that would otherwise remain hidden.
Meeks' and Wang's defense of this loophole is an effort to conceal from public knowledge the secret political spending of rich and powerful interests. They intentionally omit from their argument any consideration of the rights of voters to know who is behind the ever-increasing flood of political spending on advertising intending to influence their vote. The explosion of outside political spending unaccountable to candidates, political parties or voters has exploded since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and leaves the public in the dark about where the money is coming from and what interests it represents.
Contrary to their assertions, Meeks' and Wang's vision of donor secrecy and unaccountable undisclosed political spending erodes free speech in our democracy. That's why support for transparency rules runs deep across the ideological spectrum, ranging from conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to progressive policymakers like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Enforcement of these rules enjoys broad public support. The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board staff and bipartisan, six-member board work diligently to fulfill its nonpartisan mission of promoting public confidence and transparency in our elections and state government. This provision provides guidance as the board attempts to keep up with the independent political spending unleashed by Citizens United.
As state legislators and authors of the Democracy for the People Act, we come to this from different points of view. One of us is a voting-rights lawyer who served on the Campaign Finance Board and has a decade of experience working on campaign finance law. The other came to this work from a background as a registered nurse who ran for office to take action on the things our communities need — health care, education, housing, child care and more. It quickly became clear that there are a lot of stakeholders spending a lot of money to influence our decisions and the elections that send us here. To make meaningful progress, we have to center the voices of people and communities in our democracy.
The transparency provided by this legislation is what Minnesota voters are demanding. As candidates, we heard voters express their concerns about the flood of money in our elections and describe feeling overwhelmed by negative attack ads and unsure of who was paying for them.
In the more than 12 public committee hearings, we took testimony from a multitude of Minnesotans and organizations, including Wang, who testified multiple times. The irony that he and Meeks decry the hours of transparent public debate around this bill as "sharply curtailed opportunities for public comment" in one breath while attacking the public's right to greater transparency of political spending in another is not lost on us. While we heard Wang's concerns, the overwhelming testimony came from Minnesotans from across the state asking us to take action to disclose dark money and secret spending.
The "express advocacy" disclosure provision in the Democracy for the People Act ensures that as we expand the freedom to vote, we empower voters with the information they need to strengthen their voice and their vote in our democracy. After all, our democracy and the public debate that fuels it should be driven by Minnesotans, not wealthy, powerful or secret interests.
Emma Greenman is a voting-rights lawyer and member of the Minnesota House, representing District 63B in south Minneapolis. Liz Boldon is a nurse and member of the Minnesota Senate, representing District 25 in and around Rochester. Both are DFLers.