First Amendment

Privacy for Rights Isn't a Trade Americans Should Be Forced To Make

Should participation in an election hinge on a voter's identity being made public? Of course not.

|

While some voters proudly display campaign yard signs or bumper stickers, many others keep their electoral choices to themselves.

Why? That's none of your business. Nor is it the business of the federal government.

Sure, many elected officials would love to know the names of everyone who voted for their opponents. But does that justify eliminating the secret ballot? Should voters have their names, addresses, occupations, and employers published online alongside every vote they've ever cast? Should the right to vote be contingent on a voter's identity being made public? 

Of course not. 

But federal law requires precisely such a tradeoff when it comes to the exercise of a related constitutional right: the First Amendment right to donate to a political campaign.  

Under current law, a person who gives more than $200 to a candidate has her name, address, occupation, employer, and the precise amount she gave made publicly available on the internet. Anyone can track her and her politics. The potential for this information to be misused to target private citizens is very real, and the chilling effect caused by the reasonable fear of such misuse is well-acknowledged by the courts. 

Candidates at the federal level raise millions of dollars from thousands of supporters. Does the fact that Jane Doe, the high school teacher who lives on 123 North Street in a heavily pro-Trump school district, gave $300 to a Democratic presidential candidate really need to be public information? Or does that information serve only to perpetuate abuse from her political opponents?

The $200 threshold hasn't been adjusted, even for inflation, in over 40 years. It is well past time to raise it significantly. 

Recent news highlights how disclosure of campaign contributions can be abused to target private citizens. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D–Texas) tweeted the names of constituents who donated to President Trump's campaign. Predictably, some of those people were harassed and boycotted. The actor Eric McCormack requested on Twitter that someone print a list of those attending a Trump campaign fundraiser in Beverly Hills "so the rest of us can be clear about who we don't wanna work with." McCormack's actions drew comparisons to the Hollywood blacklist of alleged Communists. 

Equally alarming are calls to mandate disclosure for nonprofit organizations engaged in issue advocacy.  

In many cases, calls for nonprofit donor disclosure come from sitting lawmakers who want to know who is funding advocacy that they disagree with. In New Jersey, for example, several powerful lawmakers proposed a disclosure mandate for certain nonprofits. Why? The Senate President, a political enemy of Governor Phil Murphy, was angry with a group that supported the Governor's budget, and that group did not voluntarily expose its supporters. So the Legislature decided to force many nonprofits to disclose. Groups across the ideological spectrum warned that the state's retaliatory bill would chill advocacy, but it still became law. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity are suing. 

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors recently declared the National Rifle Association a "terrorist organization." A former Republican congressman countered by suggesting that left-leaning groups are the real terrorists. In this climate, should politicians be telling supporters of such groups that they have no right to privacy?

At the federal level, sponsors of nonprofit donor disclosure bills rail against groups they oppose when touting their proposals. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) put it years ago, "the deterrent effect" of forcing your political opponents to expose their supporters, "should not be underestimated."

Some advocates of nonprofit disclosure believe that "transparency" in any context is an unalloyed good. To be sure, government transparency does benefit democracy. But nonprofit organizations are not the government, and nonprofit supporters should not be forced to sacrifice their privacy rights.

The United States boasts one of the most robust civil societies in the world. Don't put that at risk in order to serve the shortsighted interests of politicians.

Advertisement

NEXT: Activision Blizzard Sided With Chinese Communists Against a 21-Year-Old Star Player

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In this climate, should politicians be telling supporters of such groups that they have no right to privacy?

    Conservatives have always claimed that there is no right to privacy – that it is made up by liberals.

    1. What have libertarians always claimed?

      1. Roads? Pretty sure it’s roads. I bet they claim something about roads.

    2. Conservatives have always claimed that there is no right to privacy – that it is made up by liberals.

      Conservatives have always claimed that you have an explicit right to be secure in your possessions and effects and that any right to privacy that doesn’t derive from that is an even more trivial fabrication that can be even more whimsically reinterpreted away.

    3. You say really stupid things when you wander out of the child porn lane you excel in.

    4. And conservatives are right: there is no “right to privacy”.

      But federal and state governments have not been granted the power to snoop on people without due process.

      So, you might say that there “is a right to privacy vis-a-vis the federal and state government”, but no right to privacy beyond that.

    5. On the other hand, I would kind of like to know just who is buying the government and how much they paid for it.

  2. “The United States boasts one of the most robust civil societies in the world. Don’t put that at risk in order to serve the shortsighted interests of politicians.”

    The United States boasts one of the most robust civil societies in the world. Yet Reason puts that at risk in order to have coercive monopolies like the state government.

    So much for the claim to support free markets and freedom of association

  3. Apparently someone isn’t familiar with the campaign finance exception to the First Amendment. It’s very similar to the Drug War exceptions government forces currently enjoy with regard to constitutional protections.

    1. The First Amendment has no right to secrecy or anonymity in it.

  4. >>The $200 threshold hasn’t been adjusted, even for inflation, in over 40 years. It is well past time to raise it significantly.

    how ’bout kill it significantly?

    1. Only nonprofits should have a *complete* exemption. Political donations are icky and big donors should be outed.

      /sarc

  5. Campaign finance laws are useless. The penalties are dwarfed by the potential rewards so why not violate them wholesale?

  6. “In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors recently declared the National Rifle Association a “terrorist organization.” A former Republican congressman countered by suggesting that left-leaning groups are the real terrorists.”

    The article by former Republican Congressman Alan West listed four left-wing terror groups – the KKK, Planned Parenthood, Antifa and BLM,

    Even if we give BLM a pass, the rest sure sound like violent organizations to me. Planned Parenthood’s activities are legal (or a least unprosecuted) because the establishment wants it that way, but normally, a group which killed babies (in between mammograms, of course /sarc) would be considered kind of terroristic.

    1. Why would you give the Bureau of Land Management a pass?

      1. Yeah. Definitely a terrorist organization.

  7. As I understand the Supreme Court’s wisdom on this issue, normally the government can force disclosure of campaign donations, because transparency. They allow an exception only if it can be shown that donors are at risk for retaliation.

    In the 1970s world where the Court operated at the time, this meant that major-party donors had nothing to fear so their names should be disclosed. Small unpopular parties like the Socialist People’s Popular Party might be able to get an exemption because local anticommunists might give donors a hard time.

    Nowadays, you’re unlikely to get mobbed or fired for donating to the Socialist People’s Popular Party, but your risk *is* greater if you donate to Republicans, especially Trump.

    It’s an upside-down world compared to what the Court envisioned. Maybe the Justices should revise their doctrines to bring them closer in line with reality.

  8. Every time I hear about secret ballots, I think of No Treason.

    http://www.freedomforallseasons.org/TaxFreedomEmail/LysanderSpoonerNoTreason.pdf

    None of the voters in this country appoint their political agents in any open, authentic manner, or in any manner to make themselves responsible for their acts. Therefore these pretended agents cannot legitimately claim to be really agents.
    Somebody must be responsible for the acts of these pretended agents; and if they cannot show any open and authentic credentials from their principals, they cannot, in law or reason, be said to have any principals.

    But even these pretended agents do not themselves know who their pretended principals are. These latter act in secret; for acting by secret ballot is acting in secret as much as if they were to meet in secret conclave in the darkness of the night.

    1. The secret ballot makes a secret government; and a secret government is a secret band of robbers and murderers. Open despotism is better than this. The single despot stands out in the face of all men, and says: I am the State: My will is law: I am your master: I take the responsibility of my acts: The only arbiter I acknowledge is the sword: If anyone denies my right, let him try conclusions with me. But a secret government is little less than a government of assassins. Under it, a man knows not who his tyrants are, until they have struck, and perhaps not then. He may guess, beforehand, as to some of his immediate neighbors. But he really knows nothing. The man to whom he would most naturally fly for protection, may prove an enemy, when the time of trial comes.

      This is the kind of government we have; and it is the only one we are likely to have, until men are ready to say: We will consent to no Constitution, except such an one as we are neither ashamed nor afraid to sign; and we will authorize no government to do anything in our name which we are not willing to be personally responsible for.

      I can’t entirely disagree with the premise, but the conclusion might need a little work. Not sure about the consequences that people would be “responsible for”. Does he mean mob violence or some kind of court system?

      1. What is the motive to the secret ballot? This, and only this: Like other confederates in crime, those who use it are not friends, but enemies; and they are afraid to be known, and
        to have their individual doings known, even to each other. They can contrive to bring about a sufficient understanding to enable them to act in concert against other persons; but beyond this they have no confidence, and no friendship, among themselves. In fact, they are engaged quite as much in schemes for plundering each other, as in plundering those who are not of them. And it is perfectly well understood among them that the strongest
        party among them will, in certain contingencies, murder each other by the hundreds of thousands (as they lately did do) to accomplish their purposes against each other. Hence they dare not be known, and have their individual doings known, even to each other. And this is avowedly the only reason for the ballot: for a secret government; a government by secret bands of robbers and murderers. And we are insane enough to call this liberty! To be a member of this secret band of robbers and murderers is esteemed a privilege and an honor! Without this privilege, a man is considered a slave; but with it a free man! With it he is considered a free man, because he has the same power to secretly (by secret ballot) procure the robbery, enslavement, and murder of another man, and that other man has to procure his robbery, enslavement, and murder. And this they call equal rights!

        1. Well said Juice!
          It is a popular authoritarian tactic to invent a “right” and then pit it against an actual right, as if we must choose one by sacrificing. Voting is choosing a thug to initiate violence, threaten, and defraud all in the name of all. It is not majority rule, it is majority or plurality enslavement, mass forfeit of sovereignty. But no one has the right to enslave another, by vote or any other way.

  9. This article was engineered to protect Soros.

  10. Votes have externalities. I think that means government can do whatever it wants QED.

  11. Or we could just outlaw all donations to politicians and their campaign organizations, by accurately defining them as bribes for future access.
    The charade that politicians need a gazillion dollars “to get their message out” went away the day Al Gore invented the internet. Anyone can communicate with the entire voting population on the web. The FEC could even set up the web site, with a page for each candidate. The free press could still pretend to be fact checking, but the actual source material would be available to all to fact check the fact checkers.
    And we could force a 10 week campaign time frame, so the elected officials would have time to do their damn job instead of endlessly begging. Oops, I mean campaigning.

    1. Tell me more about how libertarians want to restrict personal gifts between private citizens! That’s so libertarian!

  12. The ancient Greeks had it right: representative democracy isn’t democracy at all, it turns quickly into plutocracy.

    Their answer to this was the same process we use for jury selection: random selection of representatives from among the eligible population. We could do the same for Congress: every two years, groups of 100 or more people choose a representative, and from among those 3 million eligible representatives, about 500 are randomly chosen to serve in the House for four years. Once you have served, you cannot be nominated again.

  13. Robert LeFevre thought the secret ballot was tyranic. That is, if you’re taking a part in ruling us, why shouldn’t your actions in doing so be at least publicized? Otherwise we have secret rulers making secret decisions affecting us, and we don’t know whom to blame.

  14. “…nonprofit supporters should not be forced…”
    No one should be forced, i.e., suffer the initiation of force, threats, or fraud. Why? Doing so is immoral, impractical, and anti-social because it violates our rights and reason by pitting all against all, e.g., the worldwide political paradigm. Every country, backed by the majority, support coercion, inflicted by an elite (rulers).
    Allowing the enforcers to be selected in secret protects criminal activity. It also makes voting fraud easier. Imagine a public vote counter that everyone could watch as each casts a vote. The total could be monitored in real time by everyone, removing or reducing the chance of fraud.
    If threat of retaliation is probable, perhaps the rejection of choice, the coercive paradigm, needs to be questioned, not encouraged by secret conspiracies to choose thugs who pretend to represent.

  15. Don’t put that at risk in order to serve the shortsighted interests of politicians.

    For example, the ones that want to destroy transparency.

Please to post comments