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Another Voice: Campaign finance disclosure laws may invade citizens’ privacy

By Luke Wachob

Campaign finance disclosure laws are supposed to empower citizens to monitor elected officials. But today, we increasingly hear calls for disclosure laws that would do the opposite: afford those in power the ability to monitor the beliefs and activities of the citizens they serve.

According to The Buffalo News editorial, “Disclosure of political contributions is a fundamental check on government,” dark money allows anonymous contributions to nonprofits for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate or issue.

However, all contributions of more than $200 to federal candidates are publicly disclosed, including the contributor’s name, address, occupation and employer. In addition, contributions to political parties, PACs and super PACs are also fully disclosed over similarly small thresholds. In New York, all contributors who give more than $99 to statewide and legislative candidates are disclosed.

These disclosure requirements are aimed at organizations that work to elect or defeat candidates. In other words, we disclose personal information about donors whom we know contributed for political purposes.

The debate is whether all nonprofits should be forced to comply with the same invasive disclosure requirements that exist for giving to candidates, parties and PACs. Current law requires disclosure of the identity of any contributor who gives to a nonprofit for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate. Violations can result in criminal penalties.

When donors do not specify a political purpose, disclosing their identities makes no sense. A donor who gives to an organization that spends 10 percent of its funds on politics might not be aware of, or may even oppose, that organization’s political messaging.

We all want as much information about our elected officials as possible. But that information must be accurate, and it must be balanced against citizens’ right to privacy while recognizing that small organizations cannot always afford the lawyers and accountants necessary to navigate complex campaign finance regulations. Even Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig and his $10 million super PAC, Mayday PAC, ran afoul of disclosure requirements in the 2014 elections. If experts with millions of dollars at their disposal can’t get it right, what hope do average citizens have?

The News portrays the disclosure debate as a simple question of how transparent government should be. The reality is far more complicated. Policies that inform the public and hold leaders accountable will win support. Policies that invade citizens’ privacy and hamper volunteer-run organizations will meet opposition.

Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va.