Campaign Finance Disclosure: For Thee, But Not for Me

April 1, 2007

By Dick Carpenter

Do you think that campaign finance “reforms” requiring mandatory disclosure of contributors to campaigns are benign?  Or that such disclosure provides more information to voters with little cost?

Think again.

Each election season, 24 states allow citizens to vote directly on laws.  “Issue campaigns” try to convince citizens to vote for or against these ballot issues that cover subjects from the mundane to the controversial.  In each of those states, such advocacy groups must register with the government and disclose the identities of all contributors.  This mandatory disclosure is one of the universal features of all campaign finance regulations.

During the final weeks of the November 2006 election, we surveyed more than 2,200 people in six states about mandatory disclosure in issue campaigns.

Not surprisingly, we found 82 percent support the policy—that is, they support it until they must disclose their own personal information to the government and to the public.  More than 56 percent would not wish to disclose their own name, address and contribution amount, and 71 percent opposed revealing their employer’s name—a common requirement.

Even worse, most people would think twice before donating to a campaign if their personal information and employer’s name were revealed.  Respondents cited concerns over privacy and safety, the violation of a contributor’s secret ballot, and the risk of retaliation by employers, acquaintances or political opponents.

The results make clear the costs of mandatory disclosure:  a chilling effect on core First Amendment freedoms of political speech and association.

But what about the benefits?

A significant majority of respondents had no idea where to access disclosure lists or bothered to read such information before voting.  The benefits?  They are essentially nil.

The results of our survey, published in March as Disclosure Costs: Unintended Consequences of Campaign Finance Regulation, provide additional intellectual ammunition to IJ’s litigation defending free political speech from the “good intentions” of government.  And for our clients in Washington and Colorado, discussed in the cover story of this issue of Liberty & Law, the results confirm how such intentions produce consequences that are anything but good.

Dick Carpenter is IJ’s director of strategic research.

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