Daily Media Links 4/20: FEC Mulls How Much Harassment Is Enough for Disclosure Exemption, Advocacy Groups Challenge Ethics Laws, and more…

In the News                                           

Philanthropy Magazine: The Legal and Political Landscape of Donor Privacy

By Sean Parnell

A 2014 lawsuit challenging the California attorney general’s demands, filed by the Center for Competitive Politics, argued that mandatory donor disclosure violates the First Amendment. Several additional 501c3 nonprofit organizations, including The Philanthropy Roundtable, filed amicus briefs in support of CCP’s petition…

Unfortunately, the way campaign finance laws are written they often encompass speech by charities related to issues, not candidates or elections. This is exactly what happened to the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based think tank organized under section 501c3 of the federal tax code and thus prohibited from intervening in elections. In 2014 it wanted to pay for radio advertisements encouraging Coloradoans to contact their two U.S. senators and urge them to support criminal-justice reforms, something well within the scope of proper activity for a charity.

But because one of the state’s two senators was running for re-election at the time, the Independence Institute would have been forced to reveal its major donors if it had run the ads within 60 days of the election. It decided not to run the ads and sued to challenge the application of campaign finance law to organizations that cannot legally engage in election campaigns. 


Five Lessons about Spending in the 2016 Campaign You Might Have Missed

By Scott Blackburn

The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) recently released their final tally of spending in the 2016 election cycle. Here are 5 takeaways:

Despite hyperbolic predictions, “dark money” was nearly non-existent in 2016….

In the election cycles following Citizens United, total spending has been decreasing….

The media’s influence far outstrips all campaign spending….

The influence of super PACs is overstated….

Super PAC spending on congressional races was almost identical across parties…

Out-of-State Spending Was High in Georgia Special Election, and That’s OK

By Joe Albanese

The outsized attention being paid to a few special elections means an early opportunity for the politically active to create favorable momentum going into the 2018 midterms. Consequently, it also means the return of the perennially favorite election narrative: “shady, out-of-state money is drowning out local voters!” That’s the overarching message of an article from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) about the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District…

Those quoted in the article lament the fact that out-of-state spending means that national groups might have an influence on the decisions of local voters. But voters still ultimately choose their preferred candidate, and there is no reason why citizens having their mind changed by someone in Georgia versus someone in a different state matters – especially since out-of-state money is supporting multiple political viewpoints in this race…

Americans should acknowledge that out-of-state spending is no vice in and of itself. Rather, it reflects a basic fact that elections have consequences for people around the country, and those citizens have a stake in their outcomes worth speaking out about.


Bloomberg BNA: FEC Mulls How Much Harassment Is Enough for Disclosure Exemption

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Lawyers for the Socialist Workers Party said the party shouldn’t have to show the party faces “serious” threats of harassment and reprisals in order to be exempt from Federal Election Commission disclosure rules.

Extensive written comments filed by party lawyers ahead of an April 20 FEC open meeting sought to persuade the commissioners they should extend the party’s unique, decades-old exemption from campaign finance law requirements to disclose donors and vendors. The fringe party’s long history of persecution should be enough for a continued waiver from having to disclose, the comments said, despite arguments that recent incidents have been few and relatively minor…

The SWP lawyers’ comment letter made a last-ditch argument to preserve the party’s disclosure exemption, saying the courts and the FEC have never required the applicant to provide evidence of “serious” harassment and reprisal, but rather only that they establish “a reasonable probability that the compelled disclosure of a party’s contributors’ names will subject them to threats, harassment or reprisals from either Government officials or private parties.”

Wall Street Journal: Investors To Seek Political Spending Disclosure in U.S. Proxy Season

By Mara Lemos Stein

Proxy season will kick into high gear in the U.S. from next week, and shareholders’ quest for greater corporate political spending disclosure is alive and well at Fortune 250 companies.

Most Fortune 250 companies will hold their annual general meetings between the last week of April and early June, with 42 of them happening in the last two weeks of April. Shareholders have filed a total of 52 proposals at these 42 companies, of which nine target corporate political spending or lobbying, according to a report by the Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor released Wednesday…

Although the number of proposals has risen and many companies are improving transparency on their political contributions, these resolutions have only once received a majority of shareholders’ vote at the ballot, said Proxy Monitor…

“The average shareholder support for political-spending and lobbying proposals has remained below 25%, with no noticeable uptick,” said Proxy Monitor.

The Courts                                           

NonProfit Times: Advocacy Groups Challenge Ethics Laws

By Mark Hrywna

Two advocacy organizations for nonprofits have challenged provisions of an ethics law approved last year in New York State that they contend is unconstitutional and harmful to nonprofits.

Lawyers Alliance for New York and the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York (NPCC) filed a complaint against the New York Attorney General’s Office. The 15-page filing alleges that New York Executive Law §172-e violates the 1st and 14th amendments as a result of a requirement that nonprofits report donor information because they provided a certain level of assistance to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations – even when that support was not connected to lobbying or political speech.

The case is expected to be joined by ongoing litigation brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and Citizens Union before Judge Richard M. Berman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Candidates and Campaigns

Springfield News-Leader: McCaskill affirms position on dark money after $500,000 ad buy from secretive Schumer PAC

By Will Schmitt

Sen. Claire McCaskill isn’t backing off from her opposition to dark money in politics, even after a nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors spent $500,000 to support her.

Last week at a town hall in Springfield, the Missouri Democrat acknowledged that she faces a tough race for re-election in 2018, spoke in favor of campaign finance reform and urged her audience to ignore messaging from outside groups…

“If it doesn’t say ‘paid for by the candidate,’ and if there isn’t a disclaimer that says ‘I approve this message’ or my opponent approves this message, ignore it. Pay no attention to it. It’s probably not true.”…

John LaBombard, a McCaskill spokesman, said the senator stands by what she said in Springfield and disputed the claim that McCaskill was being a hypocrite.

LaBombard noted in an email that McCaskill “has no actual control over this kind of ad buy,” given that she can’t coordinate with the Majority Forward PAC. He also pointed out that she voted in favor of the DISCLOSE Act in 2012, which would have required companies and unions that spend money on politics to reveal their donors.

The States

Gotham Gazette: City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program 

By Samar Khurshid

The program, run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, is seen as a national model.

This year, with few competitive races in the 2017 city election cycle, a number of sitting City Council members seem to be eschewing the program, with some having spent significant sums in the past three years and others having already raised more than they could legally spend if they participated. The level of non-participation may to some degree undermine the overall system, though the vast majority of candidates will still participate, and raises questions about those Council members choosing not to opt in. A potential wave, however small, of Council members not participating also drew a rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday…

Incumbent Council members who won’t be participating presented varying rationale for their decisions, even as they all acknowledged the public funds program as a model for campaign finance systems nationwide.

Albuquerque Journal: Ethics board rules on tax voting complaints 

By T.S. Last/Journal North

The libertarian or “free market” Rio Grande Foundation received sour news when the board determined that there was probable cause that an online video distributed by the think tank exceeded the $250 threshold required for it to register as a political committee. The foundation has said the video is part of an “education initiative” to inform voters about the negative impacts the tax would have on the community. That complaint also came from Stein, who provided an affidavit from filmmaker Glenn Silber, who says the video would have cost at least $3,000 to produce.

Pre-K for Santa Fe, supporting the tax, got a mixed result from the review board.

The board decided that the group did violate the city’s campaign code by distributing copies of a newspaper editorial that supported the tax without identifying themselves as the entity responsible for its distribution. But because the group acknowledged that not doing so was an oversight and immediately took action to correct the error, the board decided not to impose a fine but instead will issue a letter of public reprimand.

Washington Post: This is how sloppy D.C. campaign finance is 

By Editorial Board

“Sometimes someone sends you a check and unless you can Google them, you have no idea where they work . . . and sometimes you get a starter check that doesn’t even have an address on it.” So said the campaign treasurer for D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D) in trying to explain some of the deficiencies in financial reports filed by the Ward 4 council member’s campaigns. That the campaign apparently was comfortable cashing checks without knowing where the money came from raises questions about judgment and competence that Mr. Todd needs to address…

The events underscore the inherent weaknesses in the city’s campaign-finance laws and how they are enforced. It is inexcusable that the audit of the 2015 campaign took so long and that voters who were asked to vote on Mr. Todd’s reelection last year were kept in the dark. Such lack of urgency is not unusual. It is why the D.C. Council should take up reforms that would establish deadlines for the closeout of campaigns, set timetables for audits and give the agency the resources it needs to provide meaningful oversight.

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