When the Supreme Court upended a century of settled law in Citizens United and declared that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, the justices took pains to stress the public’s interest in knowing the sources of that money.
“Prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. Disclosure also “permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.”
The big dollar political donors unleashed by Citizens United and other campaign finance cases decided by the high court in recent years are delighted by their new freedom to purchase political influence. But they don’t care for Kennedy’s thinking about the importance of donor disclosure; they’d prefer that voters remain in the dark about them and what they want in return for their campaign investments.
Here in Delaware, they’re intent on overturning or repealing the Delaware Elections Disclosure Act (2013), which requires groups that publish so-called “voter guides” that push their agenda and engage in other forms of electioneering (that costs over $500) to reveal donors contributing more than $100.
The law is being challenged in court by Delaware Strong Families, a group that argues that the disclosure requirement works to stifle speech. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld the law, DSF is taking its case to the Supreme Court.
Like other politically involved charities, DSF provides its members with information about where candidates stand on issues important to those members. But in choosing some issues while ignoring others and deciding what information it will share, DSF also works as an advocate, giving the public and its members an important interest in knowing the sources of its financial support.
Transparency is a democratic value. The public’s business should be done in public. If people want to participate in the democratic process by contributing to a candidate or to an issue group, they have a right to do so. But the public has a right to know who they are and to “follow the money.”
Despite DSF attorney Allen Dickerson’s argument to the contrary, asking for donor information has nothing to do with “suppressing valuable speech.” Dickerson's group continues speaking regularly, undeterred by the law, and the added information the law provides to voters constitutes an increase in speech, not its suppression.
The First Amendment is grounded in the idea that democratic self-government cannot function effectively, unless citizens have access to information and the ability to exchange views freely. The amendment is not designed to protect privacy. Indeed, it doesn’t even mention it.
The real threat to free discourse lies in other parts of Citizens United and related cases, those that give wealthy individuals, corporations, unions, and other special interests a constitutional right to spend as much money as they want advocating for the election or defeat of political candidates. Supporters of those decisions say that money is speech; in reality it works as a supercharged loudspeaker, allowing big money interests to drown out the voices of those who can make only modest political contributions, if they can contribute at all.
While laws can still limit donations directly to candidates and political parties, “independent” spending has skyrocketed, infusing more than $1 billion into the 2012 election. For 2016, a political network assembled by industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch has proudly proclaimed plans to spend $889 million.
The American people have made it clear that they want less money in politics, and Common Cause Delaware strongly agrees with them. At the national level, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore the ability of American citizens to pass reasonable campaign finance laws in accordance with the will of the people. The Delaware General Assembly has already asked Congress to pass such an amendment, and we thank them and Sen. Carper, Sen. Coons, and Congressman Carney for championing that cause.
We also need campaign finance reform at the state level however. In the upcoming session, Common Cause Delaware hopes that the General Assembly will complete the agenda laid in the Veasey Report by banning all gifts from lobbyists to legislators, prohibiting contributions from entities such as limited liability corporations, requiring political committees to report the occupation and employer of every donor (as is already required at the federal level), and implementing meaningful filing and oversight fees of lobbyists for use by the Public Integrity Commission. We also plan to work for a system of public finance that will help level the playing field for candidates and voters.
Common Cause Delaware
Claire Snyder-Hall currently serves as program director for Common Cause Delaware. She has over 20 years experience working on civic engagement. Before relocating to Rehoboth Beach, she was an associate professor of political theory at George Mason University. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University and a BA cum laude from Smith College.