Truth in Political Advertising:
Illinois’ New Disclosure Requirement
October 5, 2004
Nobody, not political parties, not voters, not even the candidates, says they love to watch political attack ads. Not surprisingly, many of the most negative ads aren’t even sponsored by candidates. Instead, the attacks are launched by outside groups, sometimes shadowy, fly-by-night outfits. But a new section of Illinois’ election code will help voters to understand who is paying for these ads, and who really stands behind their messages.
Background: Why Disclosure?
Illinois campaigns have seen a host of political dirty tricks in recent years. For instance:
In the final days of the1998 primary campaign, a sitting state lawmaker, who had been criticized by environmental groups, was endorsed by a new environmental group. The lawmaker squeaked out a win in the primary but, after the new group was revealed to be a sham, went on to lose the General Election.
In the 2002 General Election, a group calling itself the American Taxpayers Association began running ads critical of Supreme Court candidate Sue Myerscough. She went on to lose the election.
Also in 2002, a group calling itself the Law Enforcement Alliance of America ran ads attacking Attorney General candidate Lisa Madigan; she won in a close race despite the ads.
What these three examples have in common is that none of the third party groups sponsoring these ads filed campaign disclosure reports with the state to reveal the sources of their funding. Aside from what the ads’ sponsors chose to reveal within the ads themselves, voters had no means of evaluating the source of the information. New provisions in Illinois’ election law, however, change that. Now, any group running ads about state or local candidates in the final 60 days of the fall campaign season or in the 30 days before a primary election must play by the same rules as the candidates themselves. These groups must reveal their leadership, the sources of their funds, and explain where their money was spent.
Like Federal Law, With a Key Difference
Illinois’ new provision is very similar to a key provision in the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold) law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in December, 2003. The law says that groups running ads that mention federal candidates must form a federal PAC to pay for those ads and file campaign disclosure reports with the Federal Elections Commission. This covers all ads mentioning candidates for U.S. President, U.S. Senate, and U.S. Congress in the period beginning 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary election.
Illinois new law covers ads that refer to candidates for statewide executive office, state legislature, the judiciary, and county and municipal office. Organizations running these ads in the 60 days before a general election must now form state political committees and reveal their finances.
A key difference between state and federal law, however, is that political committees formed at the federal level may not accept any contributions of more than $2000 and can accept contributions only from individual citizens or federal PAC’s. Illinois’ political committees have no such restrictions. There are no limits on the size of contributions to Illinois committees, nor are they prohibited from accepting direct contributions from corporations, labor unions, and trade associations.
Another, less important difference, is that the federal law applies only to ads that are broadcast on television. Ads mentioning federal candidates can continue to run on radio, cable TV, newspapers, the Internet, and in any other medium, even if they ad’s sponsors won’t disclose their finances or abide by contribution limits. But at the state level, all ads are covered, regardless of where they appear. Any group whose communications mention a state candidate must disclose the financing of the ad, regardless of where the ad is placed.
What the state and federal requirements share, though, is what is most significant: groups sponsoring ads must disclose the source of their funds, to better help voters to put the ads in their proper context.
How Illinois’ New Law Will Work
In practice, the new provisions in Illinois law will mean that we are less likely to see the late-breaking hit-and-run attack ads that appeared in the past. Ads that mention state candidates in the two months before the general election can continue to run. Groups can still run ads critical of state candidates. And groups still have no restrictions on how they pay for these ads – they can still use corporate or union funds, just as they could before the new law took effect. What is new is that the group running the ad must now create a paper trail for the public to follow by forming a political committee and disclosing how they paid for the ad.
These groups will now have to follow the same rules that candidates must follow. They will have to reveal their donors, when those donors give in excess of $150. They will have to file updates on their fundraising during the final month of the election. And they will have to disclose how they spent their funds – where they placed the ads, who they hired to design and develop the ads, who they paid to assist with the ads.
As a result of this new provision, voters can learn more about the groups that run political ads. Voters can learn who is supporting the group, where the bulk of the group’s money is from, and how the group is spending its money. All of this information should be available before voters head to the polls to cast their ballots, allowing voters to make a more informed decision about election advertising claims.
To access information on these groups, check with the Illinois State Board of Elections. (www.elections.state.il.us/). State law requires that political committees file statements of organization within 10 days of raising or spending $3,000; since it can take that long to produce an ad, the statement of organization may be filed about the same time the ad starts to appear. Additional information may be available from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ilcampaign.org).
Illinois’ new disclosure requirement should help voters to understand who is issuing statements about candidates. Better informed voters can feel more confident about casting votes on Election Day.