Meet the Press host Chuck Todd hosted a short, back and forth pitch on the subject of disclosure of campaign contributions by Meredith McGehee from the Campaign Legal Center and Brad Smith from the Center for Competitive Politics recently. (Short video is below.) McGehee was praising the increased levels of disclosure in the modern era and railing against so called “dark money” in politics. Smith wasn’t exactly taking the opposite stance, but was looking to promote “smart disclosure.” He argued that the current disclosure system was too complicated and cumbersome while pushing for higher thresholds for mandatory disclosure. After watching this debate I was left pondering the same question which springs to mind every time I hear this subject come up. Why are we disclosing campaign donations at all, particularly from individuals?
I will start by playing devil’s advocate and say that there is one reason for tracking donations which makes obvious sense to me. We need to be able to identify any obvious quid pro quo between elected officials and donors. While it’s clearly impossible to entirely eliminate the prospect of people “buying influence” in American politics, the rest of the voters at least deserve the opportunity to find out when it’s going on. But even on that score, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where an elected state or federal official could be significantly influenced to do something which runs counter to the public good for the price tag of $2,500.
Beyond that argument, however, there seems to be a clear case to be made against the public disclosure of personal contributions. To understand this perspective, we need only ask ourselves why we have a secret ballot in our elections. How you vote is nobody’s business but your own. You are free to proudly proclaim it if you wish, but nobody can force you to, and that’s important in a free society. If you happen to be a liberal working in a predominantly conservative owned and operated office, (or the opposite scenario) you might be a little nervous about voting for the candidate of your choice if the person conducting your next performance review – or deciding if your position is still really required – is of the opposite party. The lack of a secret ballot would have a decidedly chilling effect on our democracy, and is the main reason I also oppose the caucus system used for primary battles in some states.
So why are campaign contributions any different? Don’t the majority of us – at least on the conservative side of the aisle – agree that money is, for all intents and purposes, speech? And donations are perhaps an even more clear indicator of support than a vote. Taking the same scenario as above, how hard is it for an office manager to flip open their laptop and type your name into Open Secrets and see whether you were giving to the Democrat or the Republican? Assuming you donated more than $200 it presents no challenge at all. I’ve talked to people during congressional races who tell me that they limit their donations to less than that amount for precisely the reason I stated. There is a similar chilling effect on democracy already going on.
Perhaps you are one of the strident political activists who want to know whether or not some major retail chain or your local fast food outlet has donated money to the NRA or some pro-life organization so you can organize boycotts against them for the beliefs of their owners. You are judging them based on their beliefs and affecting their bottom line. If so, then I assume you would be comfortable having your boss made aware of every vote you cast or dollar you donated. Surely they have the right to similarly affect your ability to earn a living if they disagree with your views, right?
It doesn’t sound like such an appealing proposition when cast in that light, does it?
So unlike the Chuck Todd debate below, perhaps the question isn’t whether we need more or less disclosure, but rather whether we should do away with public disclosure entirely, at least for individuals. And if companies are people too, then why should they be treated differently? The quid pro quo problem I discussed above could still be resolved while allowing more privacy in political expression without too much difficulty. You could track all the donations as is currently done, but keep the information in a secure database available only with a warrant pursuant to a court action. If a politician is suspected of trading favors, the data could be divulged in court without names attached to it unless the donor was also charged with a crime.
Here’s the video I referenced above. Let me know what you think.