Politics

Small Donors Shouldn't Have To Disclose Their Names

| by Nik Bonopartis
A big money donor with Washington in his pocket.A big money donor with Washington in his pocket.

Say your neighbor plugs her address into site like Fundrace and finds out you donated $200 to a Republican congressman, or you opened your wallet to support a group that opposes a new affordable housing development a block down the street.

Say your neighbor draws conclusions about you from the political causes you fund. Maybe you supported a group that opposes any new developments in your neighborhood, including a yeshiva. Does that make you an anti-Semite? Maybe you supported the Republican because he helped your son get bereavement leave from his military unit, but the same congressman comes out in favor of a bill targeting gay rights. Does that make you a homophobe?

As Slate's Richard L. Hasen notes, the concept of financial disclosure takes on new meaning in the era of the Internet, when information about anyone is readily accessible with a few mouse clicks.

"No longer is it necessary to trudge down to a government office to wade through disclosure reports," Hasen writes. "With a website like Fundrace, you can plug in your home address (or any address) and see to whom (and how much) your neighbors have donated in federal races."

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The question is, are people less likely to donate to certain groups and causes -- especially controversial ones -- knowing that anyone can easily find that information and use it to draw conclusions?

The answer, of course, is yes.

There's a fine line between transparency in politics and the freedom to support causes without bowing to social pressure. The Supreme Court seems to understand that, with a long history of tiptoeing around the issue by supporting one side or the other in various decisions.

But the court erred when it declined to hear a case involving a group of Mississippi residents who fought small-time disclosure. The group challenged a law requiring disclosure when more than $200 is spent to support or oppose a ballot measure.

By passing on the case, the high court affirmed a previous federal appeals ruling that rejected the group's argument, saying it's not burdensome for small-time donors and groups to report which ballot measures they support with their wallets.

Americans want to know who's influencing politics at all levels. That's understandable, and it's perfectly consistent with the values of transparency that make government dealings a -- mostly -- open book to citizens.

But, like tax regulations that are easily dodged by the wealthy and their high-powered accountants, the evidence suggests that disclosure laws disproportionately impact small-time donors, not the forces funneling massive amounts of money to ballot measures and candidates.

As Hasen points out, the well-financed groups are the ones with the resources to work around disclosure laws, obscuring their donor lists by exploiting loopholes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, hands out 94 percent of its political donations to Republican candidates, and has argued that it should not have to disclose its donor lists because that would open donors up to criticism and pressure. The chamber has spent almost $5 million in the 2016 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.

Other well-heeled groups hide their revenue sources with the kind of expertise usually associated with corporate tax departments stashing cash in tax havens.

"The disclosure chase has become a kind of Whac-A-Mole where groups that want to avoid disclosure choose different organizational forms in the tax code to hide donors," Hasen writes.

So if the little guy has to disclose who he supports, but massive organizations that accept donations from foreign organizations don't, how does that protect the integrity of the election process? Who has more of an impact on a race, the local teacher or union rep who donates a few bucks to his state senator, or the organization dumping millions into campaign war chests?

Transparency is fundamental to American politics, and it's what separates the U.S. political system from those of other countries, where there may not be any laws requiring disclosure. The American system isn't perfect, but it's the best we've got.

Still, if the Supreme Court wants to do right by the people, it should start with a hard look at big money donors, and whether current disclosure laws achieve the desired effect in the Internet era. If it takes a few seconds to pull up a neighbor's political contributions, but the political influence of large organizations is obscured with cheap tricks and loopholes, something's deeply wrong with the current system, and the court owes it to the American people to help fix it.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: AP via The Clarion-Ledger, SlateOpenSecrets / Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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