September 3, 2014
A new report describes some of the changes that the Massachusetts Legislature made to our commonwealth’s campaign finance laws after the decisions in SpeechNow.org v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC. Most of the changes will come into force next January, but some are already in effect.
The report highlights some of the “remedies,” as the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) calls them, including the new requirement that some people who help pay for certain political advertisements must reveal their names. By way of an Act Relative to Campaign Finance Disclosure and Transparency, the Legislature amended General Laws Chapter 55, Section 18G so that any entity that makes an independent expenditure* in a political campaign (including a ballot-question campaign) has to publicly list the people who contributed $5,000.00 or more. This is one of the changes that has immediate effect, so it applies to the current state election campaign.
Compulsory-disclosure advocates such as Common Cause say that the goal is to help voters make “informed decisions,” prevent wealthy individuals from “secretly influencing” elections, and “hold corporations accountable.” It is no secret that people like Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and the Koch brothers, spend large amounts of money on political campaigns; nor is it a secret that these big-dollar interventions are themselves subject of political debate and non-profit advocacy.
Prior to the new law, Massachusetts voters could already learn which organizations were making independent expenditures. For example, OCPF’s winter 2013 newsletter (page 2) explained that in the 2012 state elections the biggest independent-spender was none of the afore-mentioned billionaires, but rather the Massachusetts Teachers Association, closely followed by another union, SEIU 1199. One result of revised compulsory-disclosure law is that Massachusetts voters will promptly know the identities of some of the individuals — the ones who spend ≥$5,000 — behind the independently-funded political ads that precede Election Day.
Voters may well find it helpful to know who is paying for a particular piece of political propaganda. After all, show me who a man’s friends are, and I will tell you who he is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said (I think). But compulsory-disclosure laws have come in for criticism not only because they arguably favor incumbents but also because of the way some organizations use the information to target and intimidate individuals who disagree with them, individuals such as Scott Eckern and Marjorie Christoffersen. Indeed, as this article in The Nation makes clear, the very purpose of “outing” donors is to apply public pressure so as to “shame them and hurt business” until they “stay on the sidelines” at election time. Given this explicit objective of chilling speech, it seems likely that opponents will challenge the constitutionality of the latest version of the compulsory-disclosure law in court.
*An independent expenditure is where people promote or oppose a candidate or cause independently, i.e. not by making a campaign contribution to a candidate or ballot-question committee.