As American politics becomes increasingly divisive and at times violent, two bills threaten to force nonprofits that take issue positions to report the names of their supporters or members to the state government.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, an employee of the powerful government union AFSCME, and a number other representatives introduced House Bill 5589, An Act Concerning Campaign Finance Reform.
The government administration and elections committee introduced a second proposal, House Bill 7211, An Act Concerning Disclosure of Coordinated and Independent Spending in Campaign Finance.
The proposals come on the heels of Connecticut Democrats losing seats in both the state House and Senate in the 2016 election.
The legislation would result in a list of people who have donated to nonprofit groups that support causes in Connecticut. Critics believe government reporting of private giving could result in harassment of people across the political spectrum who take controversial positions.
The bill comes as 63 percent of people polled by Quinnipiac University said that hatred was on the rise in the United States.
It could also set up Connecticut for a fight at the U.S. Supreme Court, which has previously ruled that donor privacy is part of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
The 1958 Alabama v. NAACP decision held that advocacy groups cannot be forced to disclose the names of their supporters because it violates the right of free speech and free assembly.
The state of Alabama had tried to force the NAACP to reveal its list of members’ names and addresses, claiming that the New York-based organization was causing harm to the state. The ruling is considered a landmark civil-rights ruling.
The Connecticut legislation appears to apply to 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations – known as social welfare organizations – which the Internal Revenue Services says must “operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.”
The organizations are often formed to support a particular cause. Donations to a 501(c)(4) are not tax deductible, unlike the more common 501(c)(3) organizations, but they have the ability to support or oppose candidates and an increased ability to advocate for legislation.
Individuals, unions and companies can donate to these organizations, which can then use the funds for political advocacy such as television and radio advertisements known as “independent expenditures.” The proposed bills seek greater control over these activities.
Independent expenditures are not considered a direct donation to a political candidate and cannot be coordinated with the candidate’s campaign. Connecticut political candidates are publicly funded, provided they meet certain petition and fundraising requirements.
Similar legislation has passed in states like Montana, Delaware and California. It has also led to attempts to expose 501(c)(3) charitable organizations which are restricted from partisan political campaigning but can advocate for legislation as long as it isn’t a primary activity.
In 2015, California forced nonprofits, including 501(c)(3) organizations to report the names of supporters who donated $5,000 or more to the government. To date those disclosures to the California state government remain confidential.
The case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court but they refused to take up the matter, contrary to the court’s rulings in the past.
New York also expanded its disclosure requirements, passing a law in 2016 that forces donor disclosure for 501(c)(3) organizations. That bill is currently being contested in court. Unlike California, New York makes donor lists available to the public.
Labor unions are largely immune to the legislation because they can engage in door-to-door politicking with an army of volunteers and members without reporting it as an electioneering expense.
But unions have also set up PACs through which they funnel large amounts of money to put into the political campaign process and back particular candidates. However, individual union members are largely shielded from scrutiny or any political backlash because the donations are made by the union, not by individual members voluntarily donating their money.
During the 2016 campaign, Labor United, a union-funded PAC, released a controversial television ad attacking Republican candidate William Petit as being anti-family. The ad was quickly pulled and the Labor United treasurer was fired from the PAC and resigned from his separate position as the executive director of the SEIU Connecticut State Council.
Petit went on to win his race for state representative.
Support for organizations on either side of divisive issues like abortion or gun control could suffer out of fear of intimidation. Recent high-profile cases of individuals being forced out of employment or receiving threats due to their donations raises concerns that further disclosures could chill freedom of speech and political debate.
But the legislation may also further entrench the moneyed interests it is meant to keep out.
Yankee Institute Policy Director, Suzanne Bates, told the government administration and elections committee that the disclosure bill will simply make political participation more difficult for average citizens while moneyed interests would still have the legal and financial ability to navigate the system.
“Any time you make the campaign finance laws more complex you basically make it harder for regular people to get involved in the process,” she told the committee. “People who really want to get their money into the system find a way.”
Bates also testified about her family receiving harassing phone calls for hours on end during the last legislative session. “I put myself in a public position and politics is a contact sport,” Bates said. “But forcing private individuals into the public arena opens them up to this kind of harassment.”