Port: Proposed legislation would expose North Dakotans who donate to private advocacy groups
It's one thing to require political candidates and political parties to disclose their finances. It's quite another to tell private citizens that the private donations they make to private advocacy groups must be exposed to public scrutiny.
MINOT, N.D. — Most of us agree that political campaigns promoting a candidate or issue on the ballot should be required to make timely and thorough disclosures of their finances to the public.
It behooves a democratic society like ours to know who is supporting those who wield the power of government.
But what about donations to private groups that speak out on policy issues and elections?
Right now, those groups face few disclosure requirements, but draft legislation to be introduced for North Dakota's 2021 legislative session by state Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, would change that.
You can read the legislation in full below.
"The bill would help the public know who is spending money to influence their elections, as guaranteed by Section 1 of Article XIV of the N.D. Constitution," Hanson told me when I asked her about the bill. "This addresses the concern of dark money."
That section of the state constitution was created by the so-called "ethics" ballot measure approved by North Dakota voters in 2018.
"It would apply similar transparency standards to Independent Expenditures (501c4s) as what exists today for political parties, candidates and PACs by requiring public disclosure of the source of donations of more than $200," she continued.
Is that something we want?
A 501(c)4 is a group with a specific non-profit designation from the Internal Revenue Service.
Generally, non-profits are prohibited from engaging in politics, but a 501(c)4 can use donations to do issue advocacy. They can educate the public about their stance on a particular issue, including controversial issues. They can also, unlike groups with other non-profit designations, engage in political campaigns, even supporting or opposing candidates, as long as that activity is not their primary purpose.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund , for instance, is a group with a 501(c)4 designation that advocates for legal abortion (among other issues) and supports/opposes candidates to that end.
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action is another example of a 501(c)4, which advocates for gun rights.
The issues each of these groups work on are deeply controversial in America today.
If Rep. Hanson gets her way, North Dakotans, who donate anything more than a trivial amount of money to them in a given political cycle, would have their private information exposed to public scrutiny.
"Disclosure standards do not limit free speech but do add transparency to the election process, so voters know the ultimate and true source of funding for election ads," Hanson told me.
I'm not surprised she's making that argument, because the federal government, along with various state governments, have tried to regulate this sort of political activity before, and the courts struck them down.
Notably, the Citizens United vs. FEC ruling found that spending money on political advocacy is no different from political speech and thus protected.
That ruling has inspired those who previously wanted to regulate or limit this sort of independent speech to switch tack.
Now they tell us they're only after disclosure for the sake of transparency and ethics.
These claims often find fertile ground among voters who are frustrated with the political process and find the IRS' byzantine regulation of these groups murky.
Still, they may forget that these groups often work on behalf of issues or philosophies they support.
If you believe women have a right to an abortion, for example, and you donate to Planned Parenthood's 501(c)4 group, should you have to fear that your political position will be exposed to your neighbors?
Or your clients?
Or to online trolls who might seek to make trouble for you?
This isn't a far-fetched idea.
Back in 2014 a man by the name of Brandon Eich, a luminary of the tech industry who at the time was the CEO of Mozilla (the organization behind the Firefox browser), was forced to step down after it was revealed he donated money to a group which opposed gay marriage in California.
I support gay marriage myself, and maybe you do too, but whatever our personal feelings on the issue, did Mr. Eich deserve to be harassed personally and professionally because of his private politics?
In the current political cycle, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has criticized fellow candidate Bernie Sanders for the harassment and intimidation his supporters focus on those who disagree with them.
Is it unreasonable to believe that your donations to a private group could, thanks to Rep. Hanson's legislation, expose you to harassment from those who disagree with you?
It's one thing to require political candidates and political parties to disclose their finances.
It's quite another to tell private citizens that the private donations they make to private advocacy groups must be exposed to public scrutiny.
Here's the draft bill Hanson is proposing:
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.