The Freedom To Vote Act Would Promote Greater Transparency and Disclosure

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Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill visible through a torn piece of turquoise paper

The need to address the lack of transparency in election spending is growing increasingly urgent as the 2022 midterms loom nearer. Just like the last few election cycles, the midterms are certain to be defined by record-breaking amounts of campaign spending, including large sums of secret “dark money” spending.

To protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence their vote, we need to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money on elections.

A key step toward improving the transparency of our elections is the passage of Freedom to Vote Act, important legislation which would create a more transparent political system and make the identities of wealthy special interests seeking to influence our elections known to the public. Below are four important ways that the Freedom To Vote Act would accomplish these goals.

1. Updating Donor Disclosure Requirements

The Freedom To Vote Act would mandate that an entity spending $10,000 or more on campaign-related ads in an election cycle must disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more to the entity during that election cycle.

The bill would also close a loophole in current law that makes it easy to secretly influence elections by avoiding the use of “express advocacy,” which is when a campaign ad explicitly argues for the election or defeat of a certain candidate.

Savvy political spenders know well how to persuade voters without using express advocacy, and the bill accounts for this reality by requiring disclosure when a group spends over $10,000 running ads that promote, attack, support or oppose a candidate.

In addition, this legislation provides more information about large secretive political donations made through LLCs and shell corporations by requiring that companies spending more than $10,000 on campaign-related disbursements in an election cycle publicly disclose their beneficial owners so that election officials and the public can know who is truly behind the spending.

2. Reigning in Secret Money Groups

The Freedom to Vote Act also puts an end to the shell game of using intermediary groups to conceal the identity of the true sources of large political donations. Under the bill when more than $10,000 is passed from one entity to another and then spent on campaign activity, the money must be traced and these transfers must be reported.

3. Modernizing the Definition of Electioneering Communications

Federal campaign finance rules are woefully out of date. An electioneering ad that would be subject to disclosure rules if aired on TV or radio could escape any disclosure rules by being distributed online. Yet digital mediums are an increasingly preferred medium for influencing elections.

The Freedom to Vote Act would update the definition of “electioneering communications” to account for this reality by including paid online ads. 

This means that spending on digital ads that name candidates and run close to Election Day would have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), even if the ads avoid using words of “express advocacy” for or against a particular candidate’s election.

4. Creating Publicly Available and Searchable Archives of Digital Ads

The Freedom to Vote Act would also stipulate that every online platform with at least 50 million unique monthly users create a publicly available and publicly searchable archive of political ads. 

These archives would be required to contain digital copies of advertisements mentioning candidates or pertaining to a national legislative issue of public importance. They must also offer information about audience targeting data, the total cost of the ad, the candidate, election or legislative issue the ad refers to and who purchased the ad.

Overall, the bill would make it harder to evade transparency and help ensure that outside groups paying for campaign ads cannot do so in secret, allowing the public to be informed about who is trying to influence their votes and better enabling watchdogs and law enforcement to detect potential violations of campaign finance law.

Real transparency about who is spending big money on elections will mean more government accountability and less influence for wealthy special interests. Congress must approve the Freedom to Vote Act to protect voters’ right to know where election spending is coming from ahead of the next election.

Erin works on appellate and district court litigation and Federal Reform and State & Local Reform programs.
How the Freedom to Vote Act Would Reform the FEC