Sunday, March 04, 2001

Negative ads repel voters

        This is sort of a “dog bites man”sort of thing, but we thought you might like to know about it anyway. A survey released last week by the Institute for Global Ethics showed that Ohio voters are cynical about politicians and hate negative advertising. Son of a gun.

        The Institute's Project on Campaign Conduct polled voters in Ohio and Washington state during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles and lobbied state and federal candidates to sign codes of conduct for their races, to varying degrees of success.

        In 2000, they arrived in Ohio just in time to witness what was the meanest, ugliest campaign for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court since the pioneers hacked their way through the wilderness and created the Northwest Territory.

        The target of the abuse was Justice Alice Robie Resnick, who provided the fourth vote on some rather controversial liability cases involving the insurance industry and business interests, and she was the deciding vote on the court case declaring Ohio's school funding formula unconstitutional.

        The worst of the attacks came from something called Citizens for a Strong Ohio, which spent millions on TV ads accusing Ms. Resnick of trading her Ohio Supreme Court vote for campaign contributions.

        The “citizens” in Citizens for a Strong Ohio were, in fact, businesspeople affiliated with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, with help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

        The accusations in the ads were distortions at best, lies at worst.

        Worst of all, it was one of those so-called “issue ads” that didn't use any magic words like “elect” or “defeat,” so the chamber argued that it had no obligation to disclose the names of those who paid for the ad hominem attacks.

        They were shielded not once, but twice — once under a phony-baloney name like “Citizens for a Strong...,” and again by a flawed law that allows these groups to spend huge amounts of unregulated, unreported money.

Donor disclosure?
               The garbage they were slinging didn't stick; Ms. Resnick was re-elected easily. But Common Cause of Ohio filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission arguing that since these were ads clearly meant to defeat a candidate, the donors' names should have to be disclosed.

        Last week, six of the seven Ohio Elections Commission members were present for a 3-3 tie vote to continue investigating the Common Cause complaint. The tie allows the investigation to go forward.

        The Institute for Global Ethics' study pointed to the Ohio Supreme Court campaign as one that drove home the point to Ohioans that negative campaigns are, well, negative — that they make people less likely to vote; that they reinforce the notion that all political people are liars.

        They're not, but thanks to “Citizens for a Strong Ohio” and its ilk, you would think a story about an honest politician would have the headline “man bites dog.”
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