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Perhaps it's fitting - in keeping with Wisconsin's new reputation as America's most divided and polarized state - that now this has become ground zero for a high-stakes legal battle over whether there are any limits for anonymous money's influence in elections.
The trigger for this battle is the second John Doe investigation centered around politics, elections and Gov. Scott Walker. The first looked into Walker's time as Milwaukee County executive, and whether his aides illegally mixed county business and electoral politics.
The second looks at the 2012 recall elections and whether big-money "issue advocacy" groups coordinated with the Walker campaign and others. The investigation is supposed to be secret, but so much has leaked out or been revealed in various counter-lawsuits that a relatively clear picture has emerged.
Basically, it comes down to this. Prosecutors from several counties, now represented by a specially appointed lead prosecutor, think coordination between candidates or parties and "issue advocacy" groups likely occurred and that it is illegal. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Board also has played a role in that investigation.
Meanwhile, targets of the investigation - the Walker campaign, likely some legislative Republican recall campaigns, along with various conservative "issue advocacy" groups - do not really deny coordinating but believe nothing illegal occurred. The targets aggressively have challenged the prosecutors' investigation in both state and federal courts.
They claim the investigation is politically motivated, intended to deny to conservative groups their rights of free speech and free association.
Bottom line: They say nothing that may have happened is illegal, even if coordination occurred to bring enormous sums of secret money to bear on influencing election outcomes.
First, it's unfortunate this investigation appears to have only conservative groups in the crosshairs. That makes it suspect from the start. Liberal Democrat dark money organizations also are active with big-money efforts to influence both national and state elections. Arguments in court that conservatives are being unfairly targeted have a ring of truth.
At the same time we believe the people should be concerned about the trend that finds more and more elections being decisively influenced by truckloads of out-of-state money in which donors remain anonymous. In a very real sense these elections are no longer about local people and local issues. They have become part of a national proxy war between very wealthy donors on both sides of the partisan divide.
"Well, so what?" one might say. Local people still cast the votes.
Yes, but research clearly shows these simplistic, out-of-context and almost always negative television ads work. People swallow what often amounts to lies. Media drops of huge money can make all the difference.
The question is: Are Americans comfortable with that? Are they ready to accept that those who can pony up enormous piles of cash ought to have outsized influence in who runs the government? Aren't they even curious about who may be writing those big checks?
Recent court decisions have gone in favor of secret money. Campaign finance laws appear in jeopardy at both state and national levels. The trend seems headed in the direction of unlimited cash flow with very limited disclosure.
And let's not be naive. Big money does not just buy a big voice. It buys politicians. Perhaps not as overtly as an outright bribe. But make no mistake: Politicians know how they got into office.
We're not nearly as bothered by the money as we are by the secrecy and the "issue advocacy" sham - nothing but a fig leaf to hide the nakedness of pure politics.
If the trend is to let the money fly freely - and it is - then a proper trade-off is full and absolute disclosure. Secrecy is always wrong when it comes to elections. Voters have a right to know who is buying the politicians before casting their vote.
The fierceness of the fight in the second John Doe shows the true nature of both campaigns and "issue advocacy" groups. As with most things in life, if you want to find the truth and see the graft, follow the money. This is not a fight for purity in politics. It's a fight to maintain the supremacy of secret money and those who provide it.
When all the haze of legal battle clears, if big-money secrecy wins the day, the people and democracy will have lost. Again.