The Double-Edged Sword of Campaign Finance Disclosure
The secret ballot is one of our more cherished rights as U.S. citizens. We can freely cast a ballot for the candidate of our choosing without fear of retaliation. Until, that is, we support a candidate with more than our time and our vote. Once you decide to hand over your hard-earned dollars to a candidate that you have particularly strong feelings about, you can kiss that anonymous vote goodbye and be ready for the backlash. The public certainly has a right to know who is financing a candidate’s campaign, but have we thrown the secret ballot under the bus to get it?
A very good example comes from several years ago in a judicial race in Las Vegas. After the campaign had come to a close, the victor grabbed the financial disclosure records of her defeated opponent and started calling them up to solicit campaign donations. Many of those donors reported feeling like they were being subtly threatened by these calls. There was an unspoken implication, imagined or real, that if they didn’t start getting their dollars behind the winning horse, they could have problems if they ended up in her courtroom. Given some of the rather checkered history of judicial ethics in the Silver State, it would be hard to see otherwise.
A more recent example is the backlash against donors in favor of California’s Proposition 8. People who were identified as donors were repeatedly intimidated and had their homes and cars vandalized. A music director in Sacramento was forced to resign from his job not because of his job performance, illegal conduct, or an ethical breach. It was because he dared contribute $1,000 (a small amount of the total $38M or so spent) to support passage of the proposition. The message was clear: support an issue we do not and you will be made to pay for it. If that’s not voter intimidation, I don’t know what is.
These are just two examples in which the public’s right to know ended up being a proverbial ammo box against individuals’ ballot box. While Utah allows some smaller donations to remain anonymous, the bar is set at a very low $50. Anyone wanting to give any greater support could face repercussions such as harassment by neighbors, being targeted by a rival campaign, or even loss of employment. While a big contributor like Qwest can certainly defend itself, Bob Q. Contractor could suffer a big loss in business and true financial hardship. That’s mobocracy, not democracy, and it is absolutely anti-American.
We all want to know what contributors are pulling the strings with our elected officials before we cast a ballot, but we had better be mindful that our right to know, if abused, can stifle the political process and unduly harm individuals. I don’t know that there is a way to prevent these witch hunts and still satisfy the pubic good, but we can certainly commit ourselves to denounce such misguided actions.