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Midterm voters were largely in the dark on the identities of attack ad funders, new Public Citizen study shows

Public Citizen President Robert Weissman (left) and Common Cause President Bob Edgar at a news conference at the Capitol calling for the U.S. Senate to pass a pared-down version of the DISCLOSE Act.

The amount of information available to voters about who was behind attack ads during the midterms was dramatically less than in previous years, a new Public Citizen study shows.

The study was released at a press conference held today by six good government groups who called on the U.S. Senate to pass a stripped-down version of the DISCLOSE Act focused solely on disclosure.

Of the 10 top spending groups in the 2010 cycle, accounting for 52 percent of all spending in the elections, only three provided any information about their funders, Public Citizen found. These groups disclosed the sources of only one in four dollars they spent on the 2010 elections.

Groups not disclosing any information about their funders collectively spent $135.6 million to influence this year’s elections. That is almost exactly double the $68.9 million grand total spent by outside groups in 2006, the most recent midterm election cycle.

“Coming out of an election cycle when corporations spent an unprecedented amount to influence the results, congressional action on disclosure is a first, vital step to protecting the integrity of American elections,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The DISCLOSE Act will provide the sunlight the public needs to answer the $135.6 million question of election advertising — who paid for that?”

The DISCLOSE Act would require the identities of the funders of broadcast ads to be made public. The U.S. House of Representatives passed it in July, but it got held up in the Senate because not a single Republican senator voted to allow debate.

Critics of the DISCLOSE Act objected to provisions that would prohibit foreign corporations with domestic subsidiaries, federal contractors and TARP recipients who have not repaid their funds from spending their money on electoral politics. A bill with those provisions removed could clear the way for a vote, said Public Citizen, Democracy 21, The League of Women Voters, the Campaign Legal Center, People for the American Way and Common Cause.

“Disclosure is vital so that voters can fairly judge electioneering statements,” said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Without that information, voters are effectively wearing blindfolds when it comes to the true motivations behind campaign ads.”