CLC Pushes for State Transparency in Elections: Voters Have a Right to Know

A room full of people listening to a speaker

 Also by Kayley Ingalls, a CLC Legal Intern.

Four months away from the next presidential election and the nation’s campaign finance watchdog, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), grinds to a halt while disclosure of the sources of campaign spending is needed now more than ever. Meanwhile, states have picked up the slack and Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is supporting their efforts.

When citizens are more reliant on a functioning local and state government under the economic and health stresses of a pandemic, they should not have to wonder if contractors are selected not because of their capability but based on their campaign contributions.

Transparency is a key first step in holding government accountable to citizens, but Congress and the FEC have failed to take necessary steps to ensure our campaign finance disclosure regime reflects the current reality. CLC is supporting state efforts to fill this void at the federal level.

A lack of digital ad transparency combined with micro-targeting in the digital ad space leaves voters in the dark about who is funding the increasingly sophisticated efforts to influence their votes online. CLC recently submitted comments in support of the California taskforce examining ways to require more transparency in the digital ad space.

In our comments to the California Fair Political Practices Commissions’ Digital Transparency Taskforce we recommended that:

“California establish a government-hosted online political ad archive to provide the public with access to information about digital advertisements related to state elections. As the volume of online advertising in contemporary U.S. elections continues to grow, a number of state and local jurisdictions have adopted archiving requirements for digital political advertisements to augment the transparency of these ads. Among their benefits, publicly accessible and searchable archives of digital political ads present the most effective solution to the problem of 'dark’ digital ads in elections: online political advertisements that are microtargeted to specific segments of the population but otherwise invisible and inaccessible to the rest of the public, including law enforcement officials, journalists and watchdog groups, and voters outside of the target audience who want to learn more about election-related messaging.”

In addition to loopholes in transparency rules for digital ads, wealthy special interests and others who wish to conceal their election spending may avoid disclosure by funneling money through vaguely named nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors.

In 2018, Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive order requiring businesses bidding on lucrative contracts with state government agencies—contracts valued above $25,000 for services and $50,000 for goods—to disclose their political spending in Montana elections.

The order was subsequently challenged in court and CLC, joined by the National Institute on Money in Politics and Common Cause, filed an amicus brief in Illinois Opportunity Project v. Bullock in support of the order.

By making prospective contractors’ political spending more transparent, the executive order ensures that Montanans known when those seeking large government contracts are spending money to support state candidates and political parties, as well as financing other groups’ pre-election political ads in Montana. Transparency is a key first step in the long march towards that realization.

As the eight-Justice majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission recognized “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”


Erin handles media relations for the CLC team and creates online content.