In 2019, the Gaspee Project and Illinois Opportunity Project, two nonprofit advocacy organizations that wanted to spend thousands of dollars distributing election-related mailers to Rhode Island voters without identifying themselves or their large contributors to the public, initiated a First Amendment challenge to Rhode Island’s political transparency regime. They challenged three components of Rhode Island law: (1) a requirement that groups spending $1,000 or more to influence elections—through campaign spending or political ads—disclose donors who gave at least $1,000 and did not expressly prohibit their donation from being used for election-related purposes; (2) a requirement that groups working to influence Rhode Island elections include disclaimers on advertisements stating who paid for them; and (3) a requirement that certain organizations making election-related expenditures disclose their top five donors during the previous year on any written, typed or printed communications.
In August 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island dismissed the complaint, finding that the challenged disclosure provisions constitutionally serve Rhode Island’s vital interest in equipping voters with the information that they need to participate effectively in their state’s democratic process. The plaintiffs appealed. Now the case is pending at the U.S. Appeals Court for the 1st Circuit.
Campaign Legal Center (CLC), along with Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, filed an amicus brief in defense of Rhode Island’s disclosure and disclaimer requirements on Feb. 17, 2021. The brief surveys the legal precedent and abundant empirical evidence supporting Rhode Island’s transparency provisions, and their value to voters. As this survey makes clear, public disclosure of the sources behind campaign spending vindicates the voters’ right to know who is spending large sums to influence their votes. Transparency requirements like Rhode Island’s thus promote rather than undermine First Amendment interests by facilitating meaningful participation in the political process and enabling voters to make informed choices on Election Day.
What’s at Stake?
Many states and municipalities have disclosure laws like Rhode Island’s because they also recognize that voters have a right to know who is spending money in elections.
Transparency is at the foundation of an open democracy. Courts across the country, including the First Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court, have upheld a broad range of political transparency requirements against constitutional attacks. The Supreme Court has long approved of campaign finance disclosure as a means of preventing corruption, ensuring that other campaign finance rules are followed and informing voters who is behind election-related messages.
Despite this precedent, the plaintiffs are asserting the right to conduct their electioneering in secret. But voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to influence elections.