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In the Know: How the League is Transforming Money in Politics

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For years, the League of Women Voters’ campaign for Making Democracy Work® has focused on five key areas: money in politics, voting rights, redistricting, the census, and improving elections. The first part of this initiative is our commitment to promoting an open governmental system that is representative and accountable through campaign finance regulations. We believe that elections should be about voters, not wealthy special interest groups. 

In the early 2000s, the League was instrumental in the development and enactment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or the McCain-Feingold Act. This legislation addressed issues around soft money and issue advocacy. It prohibited corporations and unions from using their treasury funds to finance electioneering communications, advertisements that reference a particular candidate within a certain time period around an election.  

When provisions of this law were challenged in the US Supreme Court in the cases of Caperton v. Masse and Citizens United v. FEC, the League continued its support as an amici party. Our brief argued against equating corporate spending in elections with the First Amendment rights of individual citizens. In other words, it said that prohibiting expenditures by corporations and unions is not a violation of free speech. When the Supreme Court struck down the challenged provisions, the League reacted quickly through our advocacy and litigation efforts. We have fought to strengthen current regulations and to protect further erosion to campaign finance laws by testifying in support of disclosure laws in the House committee hearings and creating a task force to analyze efforts towards campaign reform. Recently, this work has focused on two amicus briefs that we have filed in Gaspee v. Mederos and Americans for Prosperity v. Becerra

Gaspee v. Mederos  

This case involves a challenge brought by the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project against campaign disclosure provisions of the state’s Independent Expenditures and Electioneering Communications Act. These provisions require organizations that spend more than $1000 on “independent expenditures” or “electioneering communications” in state elections to disclose their larger donors.  

Election-related disclosure requirements are common ways for states and municipalities to ensure transparency and accountability for money that is spent in their elections. Despite federal courts repeatedly upholding similar disclosure laws, the challengers in Gaspee v. Mederos claim that the laws violate their First Amendment rights to anonymous speech and organizational privacy.  

[A]n exemption was created for these disclosure laws for large donors who were being harassed or threatened. That’s because at the time, civil rights groups...were threatened with violence as a result of their support.

The League of Women Voters of Rhode Island has long been a strong supporter of campaign finance disclosure. In 2012, the Rhode Island League advocated for the addition of the challenged provisions when they were before the state legislature. As part of their ongoing efforts, the Rhode Island League joined Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center in an amicus brief supporting the state’s disclosure laws. Their brief argues that despite the challengers’ arguments, disclosure requirements “promote First Amendment precepts by ensuring that voters have access to information about the sources of election-related spending.” 

Last August, the U.S. District Court dismissed the challengers’ complaint and upheld the challenged provisions. The case was appealed to the U.S. Appeals Court for the 1st Circuit, where we are awaiting a decision. Why does this matter? Multiple states and municipalities have similar disclosure laws which would be put in jeopardy if the challengers in this case are successful.  

Americans for Prosperity v. Becerra  

In this case, Americans for Prosperity and the Thomas More Law Center are seeking to challenge a California state disclosure law for certain types of organizations that receive tax-exempt status. Federal law requires certain tax-exempt charities to annually disclose the names of major donors to the IRS in a form called a Schedule B. California requires the same disclosure at the state level through an equivalent form. Both the federal and state governments collect this information to help “detect and investigate fraud, self-dealing, and abuse of organizations’ special tax-exempt status.”  

In the 1950s and 1960s, an exemption was created for these disclosure laws for large donors who were being harassed or threatened. That’s because at the time, civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center faced a major problem; often, their larger donors were threatened with violence as a result of their support, so they stopped providing funding out of fear. The exemption allowed civil rights groups to protect their donors’ identities for legitimate safety purposes.  

The challengers in Prosperity v. Becerra seek to be included within this exemption. They claim that their donors are being subjected to harassment but have not shown any evidence that this has resulted in a loss of donors or funds. While harassment should never be acceptable, the challengers are seeking to expand this exemption beyond its purpose. The civil rights groups and their donors were facing death threats and other forms of extreme violence, which are absent in this case. 

The League of Women Voters of California joined the Campaign Legal Center on an amicus brief that will be filed with the US Supreme Court. The brief showcases the importance of disclosure laws and highlights the slippery slope that could result from many of the challengers’ arguments. If the challenge in this case is successful, it could open the door to many organizations seeking the exemption from disclosing their major donors, which would be disastrous for campaign finance. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on this case this summer. 

Why Does This Matter?  

Both cases present dangerous threats to the health of our democracy and could disrupt existing campaign finance laws. Public and private disclosure laws help us fight fraud and promote accountability.  

Voters have an interest in knowing where politicians and organizations are getting their money and how that money is being spent. To that end, dark-money and wealthy special interest groups do not need more loopholes. A healthy, thriving democracy needs a strong campaign finance system, and the League is dedicated to working towards that goal. 

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