Voter-ID Laws Just the Tip of the Iceberg

There's more than one way to disenfranchise voters. What about anonymous corporate campaign donors?

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But Republicans have reacted bizarrely, suggesting that corporations must be able to give to political campaigns in secret. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has hysterically described the Disclose Act as an attempt by President Obama to "identify and punish political enemies." Others have described the law as an affront to the First Amendment and "un-American."

The GOP's Misguided Defense of Secrecy

Since when did secret campaign money become a core American value for which one of our two major political parties is willing to fight? What could be more American than demanding that voters know which individuals or groups are influencing and controlling elections? What could be better for informed voting than information that allows voters to know which interests stand behind candidates running for office?

McConnell has argued that asking groups running political ads to disclose their donors runs afoul of the Supreme Court's ruling in NAACP v. Alabama, in which the court held that the NAACP need not disclose its membership lists to state officials who were clearly bent on intimidating local support for the organization during the civil rights movement. But this is an absurd and false comparison. The Supreme Court recognized in McDonnell v. FEC that campaign disclosures are distinct from the membership-list information sought by the state of Alabama in the NAACP case -- an aspect of the McDonnell case that was not overturned by the court's decision in Citizens United.

Moreover, in the NAACP case, the court recognized that the disclosure of membership lists was unrelated to the charges that the state of Alabama had levied against the NAACP. Instead, membership disclosure was likely (and perhaps designed) to expose NAACP members to serious "reprisals and threats," loss of employment and physical coercion, such that it would "induce members to withdraw" from the organization. Only a compelling interest, narrowly tailored, could support the state's petition for disclosure and overcome the right to undisturbed freedom of association. The state of Alabama failed to make such a showing in that case.

By contrast, the purposes for which disclosures are sought by the state under the Disclose Act are compelling: promoting an informed electorate, undermining the potential for corruption and narrowly tailored (applying only to donors giving more than $10,000). Moreover, it's hard to imagine how donors who give more than $10,000 for political-campaign ads are vulnerable to intimidation if their identity is disclosed.

It's no secret what's behind the Republican leadership's resistance to the Disclose Act: Citizens United has given many Republican candidates a fundraising advantage (most certainly for the presidential election), and the less voters know about how heavily corporations and other groups on the right are involved in influencing elections, the better.

It's hard to run a campaign premised on the idea that Democrats are out-of-touch elitists and Republicans are hardworking, average Americans, when voters can see for themselves the level of corporate and millionaire support that undergirds the campaign ads they see on TV. That's why it's no surprise that some top Republicans would be willing to support disclosure legislation next year, but not "in the heat of battle." In other words, let's not pass the legislation in time to allow for informed voting in this year's presidential and Senate elections.

The right to vote begins long before Election Day. It starts when voters begin to gather the information they need to make the best choices for their country, their communities and their families. Without question, every eligible voter should be permitted to cast a ballot in this year's elections.

But equally important is the right of voters to make informed decisions when they go to the polls this November. Promoting an informed electorate is an issue that both Democrats and Republicans should get behind. And voters should demand more than just the right to cast a ballot on Election Day.