Steve Chapman

All the evidence indicates that corporate electioneering makes no difference in election outcomes or legislation. John Coleman, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, examined the period 2000-2008 and found that states permitting such spending were no more likely to have Republican legislatures, business-friendly regulatory policies or low business costs.

What can we conclude from this experience? Either businesses don't spend enough money to get their way or haven't found ways to sell their message. In any case, it's hard to see how their spending can be "devastating to the public interest" when its effects are all but undetectable.

The main reason for its futility is that there are lots of voices out there trying to influence how Americans vote. This year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups (not counting party committees) have spent about $225 million on electioneering -- which comes to a grand total of $1 for every American of voting age.

That sum is less than all the contenders have laid out in a single race -- for governor of California. In 2008, candidates for the U.S. Senate and House raised a total of $1.4 billion, and that number will undoubtedly be higher this year. In addition, there are countless TV commentators, editorial writers, radio talk-show hosts and bloggers weighing in on these races.

In the end, though, none of them gets to decide the winners. It's the voters who hold the ultimate power.

That's why comprehensive disclosure of who's contributing to independent groups is less than crucial. The lack of such information doesn't keep voters from evaluating each ad in light of the other information they have on the subject. If you hear someone on the radio say that 2 + 2 = 5, you don't need to know who bought the spot to decide whether to believe it.

The administration thinks that Americans cannot possibly sort out truth and error in a wide-open clash of ideas. But all the evidence confirms: Yes, we can.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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