Rampant violations of Wisconsin election law?

Elsewhere on this blog, Sean Parnell has pointed out some of Wisconsin’s oppressive laws against free speech, and how compelled disclosure of political activity raises serious issues about citizens rights. 

Just looking briefly at Wisconsin law, it appears that many of those demonstrating against Governor Scott Walker’s labor proposals may be in violation of Wisconsin law.  For example, Wisconsin defines a “political committee” “any combination of 2 or more persons, permanent or temporary, which makes or accepts contributions or makes disbursements, whether or not engaged in activities which are exclusively political,… .”

A disbursement is defined as:

“A purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit, or gift of money or anything of value, except a loan of money by a commercial lending institution made by the institution in accordance with applicable laws and regulations in the ordinary course of business, made for political purposes. In this subdivision, “anything of value” means a thing of merchantable value.”

Clearly, we’ve gots lots of “disbursing” going on, in printed signs, the use of buses to shuttle in protestors, etc. 

And Governor Walker and various legislators all appear to be covered as “candidates” under the law if he’s shown any “tacit… consent” to being considered a candidate for re-election:

“Candidate” means every person for whom it is contemplated or desired that votes be cast at any election held within this state, other than an election for national office, whether or not the person is elected or nominated, and who either tacitly or expressly consents to be so considered. A person does not cease to be a candidate for purposes of compliance with this chapter or ch. 12 after the date of an election and no person is released from any requirement or liability otherwise imposed under this chapter or ch. 12 by virtue of the passing of the date of an election.” 

And a “political purpose” includes: “The making of a communication which expressly advocates the election, defeat, recall or retention of a clearly identified candidate,” which it seems that many of the signs at these protests do.

That being the case, are the protestors properly filing reports as a political committee?  Wisconsin requires them to register with the state and report if they make over $25 in disbursements. They can’t accept any anonymous contribution over $10, and among the extensive reporting requirements they’ve got to be reporting the identity and information on any person contributing $20 or more to the group.

Now, it’s doubtful that anyone will seek to enforce this law against the protestors and those paying for their support; and some will no doubt argue that Wisconsin’s laws aren’t intended to get at this type of activity.  Fine.  To be absolutely clear, we’re not calling for investigations or prosecutions.  We support the demonstrators peaceful free speech and freedom of assembly, and even their anonymity, if they wish to keep it, rather than informing their employers that they called in sick in order to engage in protests.

But shouldn’t we be a little worried when the legal right to protest hinges on the forebearance of the state?  Indeed, if the protestors really believe, as many seem to suggest, that they are fighting a dictatorship at least as bad as that of Egypt’s deposed Hosni Mubarak, shouldn’t they be demanding that these restrictions on their political freedom be repealed?

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.