Conservatives sue in Rhode Island to avoid donor disclosure
Two conservative advocacy groups are fighting Rhode Island's campaign finance laws that mandate donor disclosure for political advertisements — because it would impact their bottom lines and donors' personal safety.
The in-state Gaspee Project and the Chicago-based Illinois Opportunity Project filed a lawsuit against the Rhode Island Board of Elections in federal court on Thursday. The plaintiffs argue that political ads not coordinated with a campaign are protected under the First and Fourteenth amendments and should not be subject to the state's disclosure rules.
But supporters of campaign finance laws like the ones in Rhode Island say increasing transparency around political ads helps voters know who is behind the messaging.
Rhode Island's law requires groups that spent independent expenditures of $1,000 or more to report their donors and expenditures to the election board. The groups must disclose: information about the person responsible for the content; the candidate or referendum the content refers to; and the identity of all donors of an aggregate of $1,000 or more.
For groups that engage in electioneering communications — meaning any paid TV, print or online political content published in close proximity to an election — state law requires the content to include the group's name, the name and title of its chief executive, and a list of its top five donors.
Both the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project are registered as 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organizations that engage in political issue advocacy. Both intend to spend more than $1,000 on mailings advocating their positions to voters ahead of the 2020 election, according to the lawsuit.
The organizations are suing Rhode Island's Board of Elections in the hopes that, if successful, they can avoid disclosing the names of their top donors while spending money to influence state elections.
"Plaintiffs are concerned that compelled disclosure of their members and supporters could lead to substantial personal and economic repercussions. Across the country, individual and corporate donors and staff of political candidates and issue causes are being subject to harassment, career damage, and even death threats for engaging and expressing their views in the public square," the lawsuit reads.
The groups also state in the lawsuit that they believe Rhode Island's disclosure requirements will lead to "declines in their membership and fundraising, impacting their organizations' bottom lines and ability to carry out their missions."
"We believe the law is constitutional and will survive this challenge because federal courts around the United States have upheld similar disclosure provisions. Disclosure is critically important to the health of our democracy," Common Cause Executive Director John Marion told The Providence Journal.
Stephen Erickson, vice president of the elections board, used Twitter to call the lawsuit shameful and an attack on the state's disclosure rules.
"Voters MUST know where the money comes from. In an era of intentionally false ads, Russian intervention, false narratives about voter fraud, democracy is being strangled," Erickson tweeted. "This is NOT a first amendment issue. People have a right to speak. People do not have a right to use sock puppets to distort public discourse."
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.