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Continuing on Campaign Finance

My RM colleague Tim Patterson asks for another and he shall receive! Tim was responding to my Friday night post responding to his thoughts on campaign finance reform.

First, requiring voters to register to contribute does not impose even a minimal burden on their ability to exercise their right of speech in political campaigns through political contributions. Thanks to the Clinton-Era National Voter Registration Act, everyone can register to vote when they go to obtain or update a drivers license — something everyone has to do at least every 5 years. Furthermore, because of Charles H. Wesley Education Foundation v. Cathy Cox, state governments must now allow third-parties to run their own voter-registration drives without the presence or blessing of state officials.

Actually, voter registration does impose a burden on the citizen in their right to exercise free speech, because the voter must take initiative to register to vote in order to participate. A citizen has the right to not register to vote, and still retains their basic constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment. The case of third-parties running voter registration drives is irrelevant to the conversation, as the discussion deals specifically with First Amendment issues of participation by citizens, not groups.

Second, a right to speech to does not imply an absolute right to anonymous speech. No credible judge — even the most hippie-fied, left-wing, granola crunching hyperliberal — has ever held that. In fact, under current FEC (and most state) reporting requirements, you have less anonymity in contributing to campaigns than you do in exercising verbal or written political speech.

I don’t think I was making an argument for anonymous speech. I really don’t see where expanding the current laws in this regard, however, are going to appreciably change things.

Brian also, surprisingly, raises a straw man argument in tracking registered voter donations across districts (and I assume, by extension, state lines as well). That isn’t a problem. No more of a problem than Barack Obama’s campaign identifying that Joe Sixpack in Wachapreague, VA actually works for Jim Bob’s Gas Station. It’s nothing that cannot be changed through simple technology.

I think the argument here is misunderstood. In the original post, the suggestion was limiting political donations to registered voters. The point I was trying to make was that under the system one could, in theory, limit the free speech rights of non-Maryland residents by prohibiting them from donating to state candidates due to their inability to meet the voter registration requirement. Since it crosses state lines, that jumps straight into federal court if a donor or candidate were to pursue the case.

Brian disagrees that politicians should have to publish their donor lists, claiming that the information is available 24/7. Really? I wonder how often Brian uses the so-called database the state provides. Quite frankly, I write applications like this for a living, and monkeys fucking a football could do a better job. Also, I would like to see elected officials (or even the losers) step up to the plate and say “This is my list of donors, and I am comfortable with the people donating to me.” In other words, I think a couple pounds of accountability to should be infused on the recipient side of the ledger.

I use the system quite often, actually. No, it’s not perfect, but it is clearly available to voters. The idea of elected officials publicizing their donor list is superfluous when that information is already easily available to the voter. If one were to determine that they were or were not going to support a candidate based on their publicizing their donor list, that’s the voters choice. But no baseline has been established as to what “publishing” is, how it is done, and who is going to pay for it.

Finally, Brian makes the claim that these changes wouldn’t make government cleaner, rather it would just push it back into the backroom-stuff that we already see. I would like Brian to expound on that argument futher, but I don’t see how that can be true. Knowing who gave how much when — say, like a week before the General Assembly convenes — would be very instructive. It would force the nebulous “pay for play” schemes of the Bruce Bereanos out into the light (actually, it would probably put Bruce Bereano out of business).

It’s simple really. If you are limiting the field of donors to individuals who are registered voters. You are taking millions of dollars of political donations out of the system. That money is going to find its way somewhere, either into campaign coffers against the current laws, or into the pockets of politicians. To think that “pay for play” schemes that are currently going on in Annapolis are going to be forced into the sunshine based on these new laws is, bluntly, Pollyannaish because such schemes are already against the law. Bribery is a crime. Forcing millions of dollars out of political coffers just encourages further illicit activity. Bruce Bereano doesn’t go out of business, but he may go underground.

I agreed from the beginning, and still do, with the concept of near instantaneous reporting. But that only works when coupled with the removal caps on donations. That is the only way that fundraising is going to truly be done in plain sight. Further government restriction on those who can and cannot donate will have the opposite effect and provide more ways for politicians to avoid scrutiny.


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