Is the U.S. Backtracking on Political Finance Transparency as Others Move Forward?

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I recently returned from Croatia, where I was invited to speak about what works and what doesn’t in terms disclosure of money in politics in the United States. I was certain that the portion of my talk advocating disclosure of all election-related spending would lead to questions about whether, in some cases, anonymity is necessary to protect those who want to make financial contributions for election related activities. After all, Croatia is in a part of the world where, until recently, exercising one’s right to free speech could have serious consequences. I had come armed with answers to respond to questions about whether some level of anonymity associated with political contributions is ever appropriate.

My answers remained in my briefcase. I did not need to share that even the extremely conservative Justice Scalia understands that, “harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” For this audience, it was a given that the sources of money behind election-related activities must be public. Needless to say, the acceptance of disclosure by those attending a conference on election innovations does not make transparency a region-wide or even a countrywide trend. But that no one even raised the issue of anonymity as a necessary condition for financial political participation was a stark and telling contrast to the debate over dark money in this country.

Since the Citizens United decision, there has been a vocal camp decrying disclosure, despite the Supreme Court’s own recognition that “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way [and] transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” But compared with the recent and real histories of new and emerging democracies, where free speech has been met with government intimidation, harassment and punishment, the parade of horribles spelled out by Mitch McConnell and others seems almost laughable.

In this country, there are protections for those who can establish a real and legitimate threat as a result of their positions. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, has for years asked for and received an exemption from having to report its contributors based on demonstrable harassment. Such exemptions, given on a case-by-case basis, are narrowly tailored to address actual harm and are a far cry from McConnell’s proposition, which would grant blanket anonymity to corporations and wealthy individuals to protect them from harsh criticism and potential boycotts of their products. (Never mind that boycotts and criticism are also protected by the first amendment.) Pre-emptive anonymity as a method to stave off any possible bad reactions is not only unnecessary, but it places all political speech on a slippery slope toward secrecy. Why stop with dark money? If we are willing to provide contributors to outside groups with blanket protection for phantom threats, shouldn’t all contributors to political candidates and parties be similarly hidden from public view?

For those of us who work on political finance transparency issues in the U.S., it is disheartening to have protect against a system of clandestine influence buying while, at least to us, it appears that parts of world where secrecy had been the norm are now moving towards greater transparency. On the other hand, perhaps it is a matter of perception. Do newer democracies look at the U.S. as at least having a system of disclosure, however flawed? In some countries, is the issue of political finance transparency so new that any debate around the issue of anonymity is yet to come? For those of you exploring political finance transparency around the globe, we’d love to start a dialogue. Please share your experiences, thoughts and perceptions in the comment space below.

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