Got a friend, $200 and a shared goal? Hire a lawyer
WASHINGTON — Ugly locutions often crop up in the promotion of ugly politics. Consider the threat of "scrutinization."
It has been made against some residents of Parker North, Colo., who expressed a political opinion without first getting their state government’s permission for political activity. Herewith another example of what is being done around the nation in the name of political hygiene, as that is understood by "campaign finance reformers," those irksome improvers whose animating ideology is McCainism.
Parker North is a cluster of about 300 houses close to the town of Parker. When two residents proposed a vote on annexation of their subdivision to Parker, six others began trying to persuade the rest to oppose annexation. They printed lawn signs and fliers, started an online discussion group and canvassed neighbors, little knowing that they were provoking Colorado’s speech police.
One proponent of annexation sued them. This tactic — wielding campaign finance regulations to suppress opponents’ speech — is common in the America of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The complaint did not just threaten the Parker Six for any "illegal activities." It also said that anyone who had contacted them or received a lawn sign might be subjected to "investigation, scrutinization and sanctions for campaign finance violations."
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of association, "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
The exercise of this right often annoys governments, and the Parker Six did not know that Colorado’s government, perhaps to discourage annoyances, stipulates that when two or more people associate to advocate a political position, and spend more than $200 in doing so, they become an "issue committee."
As such, they probably should hire a lawyer because even Colorado’s secretary of state says the requirements imposed on issue committees are "often complex and unclear."
Committees must register with the government; they must fund their activities from a bank account opened solely for that purpose; they must report to the government the names and addresses of all persons who contribute more than $20; they must also report the employers of plutocrats who contribute more than $100; they must report non-cash contributions such as lemons used for lemonade, and magic markers and wooden dowels for yard signs.
An issue committee is defined as one that opposes or supports "a ballot issue or ballot question."
The two real rationales for laws regulating political activity are incumbent protection and the convenience of government — discouraging the governed from activism. The proclaimed rationale is, however, the prevention of corruption or the appearance thereof. But corruption is understood in terms of quid pro quo transactions — candidates corrupted by contributions. So, there cannot be corruption in ballot issue elections because there are no candidates to corrupt.
Undeterred by this detail, advocates of political regulation say compulsory disclosure of involvement even in ballot issue campaigns — meaning compulsory denial of political privacy — is inherently good because information always is, too. The regulator’s motto is "Dirigo, ergo sum" — I boss people around, therefore I am.
The Parker Six respond: We have secret ballots so government cannot compel voters to disclose how they vote in elections, so why should government compel them to reveal what position they take on ballot issues before voting? As the Supreme Court has said, anonymity is a shield from retaliation for unpopular opinions — for or against stem cell research, same-sex marriage, etc.
In an experiment by a University of Missouri professor involving 255 participants, almost all of them college graduates, the average participant correctly completed only 41 percent of the reporting requirements on three states’ political disclosure forms. Burdensome disclosure requirements and other regulations are, in effect, taxes on political speech. They deter political activism by small groups that are discouraged by the costs — in money, time, nuisance and potential liabilities — imposed by regulations.
John McCain bears principal responsibility for legitimizing the idea that government should have broad powers to regulate political activity in the name of combating corruption. If his wanderings take him to Parker North, he can make partial amends by congratulating the Parker Six on defeating annexation, and by endorsing their federal lawsuit, which is supported by the libertarian Institute for Justice, to overturn Colorado’s regulations as unconstitutional burdens on the exercise of fundamental rights.
That last might be too much straight talk to expect from the perpetrator of McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on the quantity, timing and content of political speech.
Will is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who writes for the Washington Post and Newsweek.