Should There Be Less Disclosure in Campaign Finance? (U.S. News & World Report)


Disclosure about money in politics is as American as apple pie.  When Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he expressed the fundamental notion that American democracy is best served by having citizens who are informed about the message and the messenger.

Currently, the problem in our political system is too little disclosure.  Groups such as Crossroads GPS (run by Republican operative Karl Rove) and Priorities USA (run by Democratic operative Bill Burton) are spending massive amounts to influence the outcome of the 2012 elections.  Yet they are able to keep the sources of their money hidden, providing donors with anonymity.

The Courts have repeatedly upheld contributor disclosure laws, even in the Citizens United decision.  Writing for the majority in an 8-to-1 vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, "We reject Citizens United's challenge to the disclaimer and disclosure provisions. Those mechanisms provide information to the electorate. The resulting transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages."

Justice Kennedy also wrote, "With the advent of the Internet, 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. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests."

In addition, Justice Antonin Scalia stated in a recent case challenging disclosure, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”  Justice Scalia implored his fellow justices to recognize that without disclosure, America will “not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Opponents of disclosure make the dubious claim that meaningful disclosure will increase the possibility of harassment and thereby ‘chill’ free speech.  This claim, however, is not supported by more than thirty years of experience with disclosure of contributions to candidates, parties and PACs.

In short, less disclosure means a less informed electorate.  Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “I am a firm believer in the people.  [G]iven the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.  …The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Our current disclosure laws are failing the American people.  We are not being given the real facts, or the truth.  We deserve – and need -- better.

This opinion piece by Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on June 21, 2012. To read it at U.S. News & World Report, click here.