Disclosure laws that require identification of campaign contributors were the focus of a Tuesday session at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Atlanta. And in true NCSL fashion, the panel represented a broad spectrum of interests: an academic, one “pro” advocate, one “con” advocate, and a practitioner who has to actually carry out the laws.
Limits on political contributions got a jolt in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that restricting independent political spending by corporations, associations or labor unions violated the First Amendment right to free speech. The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the floodgates to campaign contributions by political action groups, and left policymakers and citizens alike asking, “Is this what the justices had in mind?”
“Yes,” argued Brad Smith from the Center for Competitive Politics. He took issue with the common perception that the ruling was wrong and that legislators should look for other ways to limit the influence of money on political campaigns. Since the ruling, about half the states have strengthened their disclosure laws, according to NCSL’s expert, Karen Shanton.
Smith advised lawmakers, with regards to disclosure laws, to weigh the benefits against the costs. And he wasn’t talking only about financial costs. He described some incidents of harassment of contributors (boycotting businesses, picketing in front of homes) by those who easily found personal information because of disclosure laws. If states decide to require more transparency, they should consider carefully who must report, and how far back in the money chain to go, he said.
Doug Kellner from the New York Board of Elections agreed that disclosure laws involve real costs to governments—in technology, enforcement and public education. He cited figures from New York that it costs around $100 per registered PAC a year. In New York, about 13,000 political action committees are registered.
Pete Quist with FollowTheMoney.org described his group as “pro transparency, not pro limits.” The organization tracks campaign expenditures in all 50 states and grades states on the strength of their disclosure laws. He suggested states should not only track who gives the money, but also who gets it, and who gets a “pass” from having to report.