What should we call people who want to influence the outcome of elections without having to disclose campaign contributions or allow their behind-the-scenes maneuverings to be revealed to voters?

How about "cowards"?

If that seems too strong, well, it's not as bad as the term that used to apply. That term was "criminals," as failing to disclose most campaign contributions was illegal, or becoming so, during the halcyon days of campaign finance reform that began in the 1970s. But the reform era ended with a crash in January when a derelict U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations can spend as much money as they wish to support -- or oppose -- a candidate.

History often takes decades to render a verdict on the bad effects of mistaken decisions. But the rank odor of the decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission signaled a foul mistake right off the bat:

"The Supreme Court just put our democracy up for sale to the highest bidder," declared Common Cause, the organization that started the crusade for campaign finance reform and open government in 1970 (it was founded by a Republican, John Gardner). The decision by a recklessly "activist" court, Common Cause continued, opened "the floodgates to out-of-control political spending by the wealthiest special interests."

We are now seeing how wealthy special interests -- including billionaires who dabble in and promote kooky ideas about climate change, human evolution and unchecked exploitation of natural resources -- are trying to buy the 2010 elections.

And these are the kind of people who expect to get what they pay for.

In Minnesota, giant companies such as Target, Best Buy and 3M have put hundreds of thousands into partisan efforts to support the Republican candidate for governor, Tom Emmer, and to defeat DFL candidate Mark Dayton. How these corporations believe public education and highways will be funded in a "cut government" Emmer administration, they don't say. But they have caused many consumers to think about what their Post-it Notes and gift cards are financing.

At least those corporate contributions, unwise though they may be, are public information. Other interest groups have gone to court to challenge a Minnesota law requiring them to disclose their contributions, and they also want a ban on political disbursements from corporate general funds overturned.

In essence, their argument is that pirates should get to use their booty as they see fit.

Although unions, too, are putting money into many campaigns, labor spending is a small fraction of the corporate spending that has been unleashed. If you think the University of Minnesota's (since-reversed) decision to pull its imprimatur from "Troubled Waters," the documentary about river pollution, may have been motivated by big money, you ain't seen nothing yet. Last spring, a federal judge struck down state spending limits on political contributions from corporations, siding with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The remaining safeguards against unreported spending are being challenged by the anti-abortion group Minnesotans Concerned for Life, and by the Taxpayers League, which, as you may suspect, is more interested in avoiding than paying taxes.

(We have arrived at that Orwellian stage where the true meaning of things often is completely opposite from the name given. If you are approached this election cycle by anyone who says they represent Americans for Mom, the Flag and Apple Pie, grab your mom and run for the hills. Take your pie, too.)

In the freshest example of the high-stakes shell game going on, the New York Times reported Friday that a group calling itself Americans for Job Security (its only employee is a 20-something Republican operative) is a front for wealthy conservatives to skirt campaign finance laws and pour unreported money into attacks on Democrats. Jobs are not on the agenda. Political domination is.

The Tea Party movement, too, is financed by hidden interests, as was reported in an Aug. 30 New Yorker magazine article by Jane Mayer. Mayer detailed the wacky beliefs and ruthless political strategies of David and Charles Koch, oil billionaire brothers (they own the Flint Hills Resources' Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount) who have given unknown millions to further right-wing causes surreptitiously while spending more millions fighting environmental initiatives and pollution laws.

"If we want to keep a government of the people and by the people and for the people, we better start paying attention," says State Sen. John Marty, whose failed campaign to win the DFL endorsement for governor last spring marked one of the only efforts to make campaign finance reform an issue in Minnesota. "We're turning elections into auctions. There's no way to sugarcoat it. Our government is for sale."

So. One more question:

What should we call voters who passively stand by as our elections are taken over, furtively, by billionaires?

Nick Coleman is at nickcolemanmn@gmail.com.