Tiny Explainer: Mitt Romney's Taxes

With a fortune pegged at more than $200 million, Mitt Romney's successful career as a businessman is a central plank of his candidacy. Critics say he owes voters more insight into his wealth -- namely, by making public his tax returns. Romney has released just one full year of tax filings, his 2010 return, and has promised to make his 2011 return public before the election, as soon as it's ready; it is due to the IRS on Oct. 15. Even the sliver of financial information he's already disclosed has proven plenty revealing, showing a Swiss bank account (now closed) and holdings in offshore havens such as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. It's all apparently legal, but critics portray it as sketchy, and Romney's low effective tax rate of 14 percent has been cited as evidence the wealthy aren't paying their fair share.

But Romney's opponents say that's not enough, and voters agree -- nearly two-thirds, in one recent poll, said he should release more tax returns. They point to precedent: Though there's no legal requirement or consistent standard, most modern presidential nominees have given the public more financial information, from the seven years released by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 to the 20 years made public by John Kerry in 2004 to the nine years George W. Bush revealed in 2000. Ironically enough, the practice of disclosing tax information was pioneered by Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who released 12 years' worth of returns when he ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 1968. But there are exceptions, such as Ross Perot, the independent self-made billionaire who ran twice in the 1990s and refused to release any tax returns at all, and John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, who released just two years of returns.

Romney has steadfastly refused the calls for more information, which have come from many fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. That has led to speculation that whatever's in the returns must be politically damaging. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, citing a source he wouldn't name, has claimed Romney didn't pay any taxes at all for a decade; Romney denies the charge, and says he has paid an effective rate of at least 13 percent in each of the past 10 years. But the tax-return issue is likely to remain a central attack on Romney given the way it highlights the greedy, out-of-touch image of him that Democrats are seeking to cement in voters' minds.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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