This originally appeared in Inside Tucson Business, a sister publication of the Green Valley News.
People, or collections of people (corporations, unions, et al), should be able spend all the money they want to inform or influence others about who they think is a good candidate for public office.
That assertion is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception when it comes to campaign finance in the United States.
A succession of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, starting with Valeo v. Buckley in 1976 (which upheld restrictions on contributions but rejected restrictions on expenditures) to the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee (which rejected limitations on independent expenditures by corporations or unions), has liberalized campaign spending in America.
The bottom line is, it costs money to spread the word about a candidate or ballot issue and restrictions on the amounts of money that can be raised or spent restrict a person’s right to free speech.
The government should not be in the business of apportioning the amount of speech a person is allowed to have. Ever.
Another SCOTUS decision expected in the next few weeks could add to the list of campaign finance decisions by undoing the first part of the Buckley decision and lifting the restrictions on campaign contributions.
If that happens, and most court watchers and campaign finance experts think it likely, then all campaigns in the country, whether for county supervisor or Congress will become free-for-alls.
Not that they aren’t nearly so already.
The last hope for voters when it comes to campaign funding is disclosure law – forcing donors to organizations, committees or candidates that spend money to effect the outcomes of elections to reveal themselves.
And not their cleverly named nonprofit foundations created for the sole purpose of keeping campaign funders anonymous, but the actual names of the people who donated.
At least then voters will know who’s trying to buy a vote.
But disclosure laws also are under assault and there is a longer, stronger tradition of anonymous speech in this country than campaign finance laws.
Yet we also have a long history of compelled disclosure on matters of public importance.
A horribly divided SCOTUS in 2009 tried to decide whether petition signers for a Washington state ballot initiative banning gay marriage could be anonymous due to supposed threats of retribution for signing.
The 8-1 decision in favor of disclosure gives the impression that this court is all for disclosure, but seven of the nine justices wrote their own opinions, only one of them in dissent, and all relied on different past anonymous speech cases as the basis for their decisions.
A resolution, SCR1003, working its way through the Arizona Legislature seeks to refer to voters an initiative to amend the state constitution that if approved would compel disclosure of anyone donating money to campaigns or committees seeking to affect an election in Arizona.
It’s a great idea that may be short-lived if the Supreme Court were to uphold anonymous campaign donations.
While there may be good reason for anonymous speech in some cases – whistleblowing, for instance – when it comes to the very core of our democracy – who to vote for – anonymity must give way.
Some campaign finance bundlers are already crying foul, arguing that forcing disclosure of donors will chill the free speech of those who want to affect an election but fear retribution for doing so.
How often would that be the case? And what is a legitimate fear and who decides that it’s legitimate? A company that is a government vendor that wants to give money to only one political party certainly faces risk if the opposing party gets into office, but that’s why we have laws that protect businesses from such corruptions.
But if disclosure loses like contribution and expenditure limits have, then the public has one final recourse – shame.
Shame used to be a pretty powerful force in this country, but shamelessness seems to have won the day these days (e.g., Anthony Weiner’s run for New York City mayor).
Nevertheless, there are still a few stigmas that when attached are hard to shed and one of those is cowardice.
And let’s face it, campaign donors who don’t want anyone to know they’re trying to buy votes are cowards and we should all call them so.
Perhaps if all Dark Money donors and spenders are labeled as the cowards they are, and the public rightly dismisses their missives as thrown dirt clods from bratty children hiding behind alley fences (you know that kid, the one every other kid in the neighborhood hated) then maybe Dark Money will fade back into the void and only those with the courage of their convictions will spend money to win votes.