Disclosure’s Costs: Colorado Court Case and Research Show How Campaign Finance Laws Make Politics an Insider’s Game

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 18, 2009

Arlington, Va.—Six neighbors from the subdivision of Parker North, Colo., will ask the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today to toss out state campaign finance laws that tie up citizens in mounds of needless red tape just for exercising their First Amendment rights to speak about issues on the ballot.

After planting yard signs and writing letters opposing the annexation of their neighborhood into a nearby town, the six found themselves sued under Colorado’s campaign finance laws and forced to register with the state as an “issue committee.” To continue speaking, they had to file regular reports detailing their political activities and financial contributions to their effort—a total of $2,240.

But a new article in Engage, a publication of the Federalist Society, points to research that suggests laws like Colorado’s—so-called disclosure laws aimed at “informing the electorate”—accomplish little more than turning politics into a game only pros can afford to play. “Politics for Professionals Only: Ballot Measures, Campaign Finance ‘Reform,’ and the First Amendment,” by Dr. Dick Carpenter, Dr. Jeffrey Milyo and John K. Ross is available here.

“Mandatory disclosure simply allows established and moneyed interests—with professional political experts, accountants, and lawyers who will not get tripped up by reporting requirements—to continue exerting their influence while silencing small ad-hoc groups with little experience running campaigns,” the authors write.

Indeed, research by Milyo, an economist at the University of Missouri, shows that all the red tape ties up ordinary citizens in knots. He asked 255 people to fill out the required registration and reporting forms for issue committees. Not one participant managed to do so correctly. Each person would have been subject to fines and penalties in real life. Participants called the red tape “Worse than the IRS!” and said it would make them less likely to participate in politics.

Carpenter, Director of Strategic Research at the Institute for Justice, which represents the Parker North neighbors, conducted a survey of attitudes about mandatory disclosure. He found that most people support requiring issue campaigns to report the names, addresses and employers of contributors for publication on a government website—unless they have to disclose their own personal information. Then support for disclosure drops dramatically.

Moreover, it is unlikely that mandatory disclosure leads to a better-informed electorate. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents did not even know where to access contributor information and never actively seek it out. About 75 percent could not name any specific funders of issue campaigns in their state.

“Mandatory disclosure invites intimidation and harassment based on people’s political views and simply makes it harder for ordinary citizens to get involved in politics,” said IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson, who will argue on behalf of the Parker North neighbors. “Under the First Amendment, you shouldn’t need a lawyer and an accountant to speak out about politics.”