The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue of whether campaign contributions and expenditures can be limited 46 years ago. The court said contributions can be limited to deter quid pro quo corruption, but expenditures can’t be limited because money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
Since then, the focus of the money-in-politics debate has shifted from contributions and expenditures to questions of disclosure—specifically, whether collecting donor information is warranted. Over the past six years, legislation on reporting and disclosure requirements has accounted for one-third of all campaign finance legislation introduced in state legislatures. A federal disclosure-friendly bill, the DISCLOSE Act, recently received a hearing in the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee. The bill is the latest iteration seeking to expand disclosure requirements for corporations as well as labor and political organizations.
Opposing Schools of Thought
There are two distinct schools of thought for considering what, if any, disclosure and reporting requirements are appropriate. For some observers, free speech and privacy are paramount. “Disclosure laws are meant to provide citizens with information about government and its officials, not to allow government officials to look into citizens’ First Amendment-protected activity,” says Alex Baiocco of the conservative Institute for Free Speech. “Expansive new disclosure laws can unnecessarily invade citizens’ privacy and create obstacles that prevent would-be speakers from participating in discussions of important issues and policy.”
For others, the benefits of increased disclosure far outweigh its costs. “Voters have a right to know who is spending big money to influence their vote,” says Patrick Llewellyn of the liberal Campaign Legal Center. “Such laws can help ensure more government accountability, less influence from wealthy special interests and less political corruption.”
Both sides agree on one thing: It helps to have objective data on which states have what laws. While all 50 states have some disclosure requirements for campaign finance and election spending, including reporting thresholds and requirements, the finer points of what, when, where and how disclosures must be reported vary.
With that in mind, NCSL recently launched the State Campaign Finance Disclosure Requirements database. This new resource provides policymakers with up-to-date information on disclosure laws in the 50 states and five territories: whether those requirements apply to campaign contributions and expenditures (you can’t limit expenditures, the Supreme Court says, but so far it’s OK to require disclosure); independent expenditures; electioneering communications (think, political advertising); and money spent on ballot measures, pro or con.
Haley Rosenspire is a legal intern at NCSL and student at William & Mary Law School.