Arlington, Va.—Thanks to campaign finance regulations, ordinary Americans are being shut up and shut out of the political process according to a study released today by the Institute for Justice. The report provides a hard look at the real-world impact of campaign finance regulations on ordinary citizens—by actually asking them what they think.
“Campaign finance laws don’t just impact politicians and professional campaigners inside the Beltway—they impact ordinary Americans across the nation who simply want to speak out, but are too often shut up by burdensome regulations,” said Steve Simpson, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice.
“Disclosure Costs: Unintended Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform” focuses on a booming area of political activity, state ballot issues. All 24 states that permit citizens to vote directly on laws also impose a complex set of regulations on those who advocate for or against those laws. At the heart of those regulations lies mandatory disclosure—that is, requiring contributors to political campaigns to disclose to the government and the public their identities, addresses, and in many cases, employers. Typically, the government posts “disclosed” lists of contributors online.
Proponents of mandatory disclosure laws see them as a harmless way to ensure an informed electorate. Not surprisingly, people overwhelmingly agree. That’s according to a poll the Institute for Justice commissioned just before the November 2006 elections of more than 2,000 citizens in six states with ballot initiatives.
But support turns to opposition when citizens are required to disclose their own personal information simply because they contribute to an issue they believe in. Fifty-six percent of respondents opposed having to reveal their name, address and contribution amount, and opposition rose to more than 71 percent when disclosure includes revealing employers’ identities.
Moreover, nearly 60 percent of those polled said they would “think twice” before contributing to an issue campaign if their personal information will be disclosed and posted on a government website.
“Government-forced disclosure has a serious chilling effect on citizens’ willingness to support issue campaigns, and thus on their First Amendment rights of free speech and association,” said Dr. Dick Carpenter, Institute for Justice director of strategic research and the author of the study. “People see being forced to reveal their own contributions and identities as an invasion of their privacy and their right to a secret vote.”
Typical reasons respondents did not want to disclose their personal information include: “I do not think it is anybody’s business what I donate”; “I don’t want other people to know how I’m voting”; “It’s an opening for harassment”; “I might get fired”; and “Because that removes privacy from voting. We are insured privacy and the freedom to vote.”
“People understand that forced disclosure makes a mockery of the right to a secret ballot,” said Simpson. “Especially in an issue campaign, where there are only two sides, being forced to reveal to which side you contributed is tantamount to government peeking into the ballot box.”
Citizens’ own responses also undercut the alleged benefits of government-enforced disclosure: a “more informed” electorate. Approximately three quarters of those polled could not name any specific contributor to issue campaigns in their states, 60 percent did not even know where to find that “disclosed” information, and solid majorities were not aware of any contributors who either supported or opposed the ballot issues they cared about.
“Forced disclosure hardly creates a ‘more informed’ electorate when most people simply do not seek out or know the information that is disclosed,” said Carpenter.
Worse still, state regulations on speech about ballot issues have caught ordinary citizens up in needless litigation, including:
• Neighbors in the tiny neighborhood of Parker North, Colo., who banded together to fight annexation to a nearby town.
• An initiative campaign in Washington state prosecuted for not reporting favorable comments from talk-radio hosts as “in-kind” contributions.
• A non-profit think tank in Colorado that spoke out against two referenda campaigns.
Information about all three cases is available online at www.ij.org/first_amendment.
“In this case, the costs of campaign finance regulations outweigh any imagined benefit,” added Simpson. “Discouraging citizens from exercising First Amendment rights is not an acceptable price for information that voters don’t even use.”
“Disclosure Costs” is available online at http://www.ij.org/publications/other/disclosurecosts.html.
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call Lisa Knepper, the Institute for Justice’s director of communications, at (703) 682-9320 or in the evening/weekend at (703) 597-2523.]