Friday, December 26, 2008

Another question about our canmpaign finance disclosure laws

John Lott and Bradley Smith raise a troubling question about what we've witnessed in the backlash against people who donated money to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign in California. We've seen people lose their jobs because it became public knowledge that they donated to the campaign. Other businesses have been threatened with boycotts and demonstrations. There have also been threats on the other side for those who gave money to the No on 8 campaign. All this was possible because of the public disclosure laws that allowed people to simply go to the internet and find out information about who gave money to which cause or candidate. Those who oppose that cause or candidate can then resort to intimidation and threats against the donors. As Lott and Smith point out, while we might fear that a political candidate could be influenced by financial donations, how would a proposition on a state's ballot be influenced?
The larger point of this spectacle is its implications for the future: to intimidate people who donate to controversial campaigns.

The question is not whether Prop. 8 should have passed, but whether its supporters (or opponents) should have their political preferences protected in the same way that voters are protected. Is there any reason to think that the repercussions Mr. Eckern faced for donating to Prop. 8 would be different if it were revealed that instead of donating, he had voted for it?
And if this type of intimidation achieves some measure of success by making donors less likely to give to some other proposition, we can expect these tactics to shift down to donors of political campaigns.
Ironically, it has long been minorities who have benefited the most from anonymous speech. In the 1950s, for example, Southern states sought to obtain membership lists of the NAACP in the name of the public's "right to know." Such disclosure would have destroyed the NAACP's financial base in the South and opened its supporters to threats and violence. It took a Supreme Court ruling in NAACP v. Alabama (1958) to protect the privacy of the NAACP and its supporters on First Amendment grounds. And more recently, it has usually been supporters of gay rights who have preferred to keep their support quiet.

There is another problem with publicizing donations in political elections: It tends to entrench powerful politicians whom donors fear alienating. If business executives give money to a committee chairman's opponent, they often fear retribution.

Other threats are more personal. For example, in 2004 Gigi Brienza contributed $500 to the John Edwards presidential campaign. An extremist animal rights group used that information to list Ms. Brienza's home address (and similarly, that of dozens of co-workers) on a Web site, under the ominous heading, "Now you know where to find them." Her "offense," also revealed from the campaign finance records, was that she worked for a pharmaceutical company that tested its products on animals.

In the aftermath of Prop. 8 we can glimpse a very ugly future. As anyone who has had their political yard signs torn down can imagine, with today's easy access to donor information on the Internet, any crank or unhinged individual can obtain information on his political opponents, including work and home addresses, all but instantaneously. When even donations as small as $100 trigger demonstrations, it is hard to know how one will feel safe in supporting causes one believes in.
I've always thought that transparency was the best weapon against undue political influence being wielded through donations, but that very transparency is now making possible a new level of political intimidation. In the debates over public disclosure of campaign donations, I hadn't heard this argument before, but with the passions aroused by some political campaigns coupled to the ease of finding this information on the internet, we're truly seeing the beginning of a very disturbing trend in political campaigns.