Non-profit organizations involved in political campaigns had to begin disclosing their donors this week after the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to stop a lower court’s ruling from taking effect. The end of the long-standing policy, which shielded the identities of most donors, pleased advocates of campaign reform but also raised free speech concerns as midterm congressional elections approach in November.
Decades-old Federal Election Commission regulations said advocacy organizations, such as pro-life or anti-tax groups, advocating on behalf of or against specific candidates did not have to report the names of most of their donors.
The Supreme Court declined late Tuesday to stay a ruling by a federal district court that overturned that rule. The case dates to a 2012 effort by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) to discover the identities of donors behind a push by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group for a Republican candidate in Ohio. CREW, along with an Ohio voter, had asked the FEC to require Crossroads to disclose the names of its donors, but the FEC found Crossroads was in compliance with federal regulations. The advocacy group filed suit against the FEC and Crossroads in 2016.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., last month overturned the FEC regulation, saying it “blatantly undercuts the congressional goal of fully disclosing the sources of money flowing into federal political campaigns.” Advocacy groups must now disclose the identity of anyone who contributes more than $200 for political purposes.
Crossroads and the FEC had hoped to prevent the lower court’s ruling from taking effect until they could appeal to avoid a change in rules just as the midterm election campaigns ramp up. Chief Justice John Roberts had issued a temporary stay, but the full court declined to continue it.
Crossroads has argued the move would force it and other groups “to choose between exercising their long-protected free speech rights and thereby incurring severe legal risks—including potentially violating their donors’ privacy—or remaining silent.”
CREW said the development will shed light on the influx of so-called “dark money” in politics behind much of the television advertising that floods airwaves ahead of elections.
“This is a great day for transparency and democracy,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “We’re about to know a lot more about who is funding our elections.”
The Institute for Free Speech, which advocates for fewer campaign finance restrictions, claimed the decision creates serious privacy, operational, and legal risks.
“It’s unfair to change rules about political speech in the middle of a campaign, and many organizations have already run [ads] during the current campaign,” the institute said. —Anne K. Walters