Disclosure laws preventing wealthy individuals and corporations from secretly influencing elections are one of the few protections left for ordinary Americans who cannot afford to pay to participate in our democratic system. Although Citizens United gave corporate America carte blanche to inject unlimited money into elections, it also held that disclosure laws “could be justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.”
Nevertheless, the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage sought to take away even this most basic protection in a pair of lawsuits challenging Maine and Rhode Island’s disclosure laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit didn’t bite:
In an age characterized by the rapid multiplication of media outlets and the rise of internet reporting, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ has become flooded with a profusion of information and political messages. Citizens rely ever more on a message’s source as a proxy for reliability and a barometer of political spin. Disclosing the identity and constituency of a speaker engaged in political speech thus ‘enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages…Additionally, in the case of corporate or organizational speakers, disclosure allows shareholders and members to ‘hold them accountable for their positions.’ […] In short, ‘the First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to that speech in a proper way.’
The First Circuit’s conclusion — that voters should have the ability to decide whether they can trust the people who seek to influence their vote — is obviously correct. Nevertheless, secret money proponents have spun any number of paranoid fantasies regarding the impact of disclosure laws. NOM’s attorney James Bopp, for example, claims that anti-gay groups must be able to keep their donors secret to prevent those donors from being harassed — because clearly, the real threat to American democracy is people discriminating against anti-gay bigots. Meanwhile, industry groups spin elaborate conspiracy theories about government officials using disclosure laws to reward their political allies, and torture lawyer John Yoo even claims that disclosure “makes some of the Nixon-era ‘dirty tricks’ look almost quaint by comparison.”
Because there is nothing dirtier than requiring wealthy individuals and corporations to come out from the shadows and reveal which elections they want to buy.