A bill is making its way through the 134th Ohio General Assembly this year that would have major implications on campaign finance law. House Bill 13 seeks to regulate the disclosure of private money donated to 501c4 organizations — often referred to as “dark money” groups.
The disparaging moniker implies disreputable sources pumping money into politicians’ coffers under a shroud in secrecy. Like many regulations, the issue of so-called dark money is far more nuanced than it appears on the surface.
Current law at the state and federal level seeks to strike a balance between requiring financial disclosures by politicians and their PACs (intended to hold politicians accountable) and allowing privacy for citizens who wish to support a cause (intended to protect individuals). It’s a tenuous balance. Upheld historically in the name of protection against racial profiling, hate crimes and other dangers to private citizens, the right of citizens to privacy concerning political activity is the trade-off for increased transparency.
In Ohio, the shadow of last summer’s racketeering scandal, where the Ohio Speaker of the House was arrested on alleged campaign finance violations, looms large over the current legislative session.
Calls for action from representatives on both sides of the aisle poured in following former Speaker Householder’s alleged $60 million bribery scheme. Ohio House Bill 13 was introduced by Republican State Reps. Diane Grendell of Chesterland and Mark Fraizer of Newark. Among other adjustments to campaign finance law, the emergency measure would immediately increase disclosure of private money to some political groups.
Currently, Ohio’s campaign finance laws regulate how individuals and organizations are allowed to spend money. There are contribution limitations, as well as restrictions on how money can be spent in a given election cycle—some organizations’ spending is limited only to ballot issues rather than candidates themselves.
Ohio law also requires political candidates and certain organizations to submit regular campaign finance reports which publicly disclose their donors and spending, providing a level of transparency that allows citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.
Ostensibly intended to make it even harder for another campaign finance scandal to go unchecked, House Bill 13 would also erode individual privacy. More donors would be exposed to public scrutiny for giving to 501c4 organizations. (See the full text of the bill here).
Though not a new trend, the possibility of private citizens experiencing a personal impact (whether in the form of doxxing, blacklisting, or other social consequences) is on the rise in the era of social media. It’s an unintended consequence of how financial reporting often works. What is purportedly designed to hold powerful politicians accountable can end up doing damage to the people who support their work instead.
And the concern private citizens feel when it comes to campaign contributions or payment details that are public record is real. At TUSA, we often get requests from citizens asking us to remove their name from our database, expressing fear that any association with a certain group or candidate could damage their image or their business — even if all they did was make the sandwiches that were purchased with campaign money for a luncheon.
We can’t remove them, of course. Our data reflects the full picture of the available reports. But it’s growing fear in the financial transparency vs. privacy dialogue.
House Bill 13 does attempt to take these potential ramifications for individuals into account. The bill includes a provision that would allow for organizations to separate accounts, and only publicly disclose contributions given expressly for political purposes, while still protecting contributions for the “social welfare” causes of the group.
While these provisions might assuage some individual fears of doxxing, they will certainly increase compliance costs for organizations. Individuals who remain concerned — as well as the smaller, less well-funded organizations — may decide it’s just not worth the legal hurdles to speak politically.
The more fear private citizens and grassroots organizations hold that their political convictions could result in personal backlash down the road, the less likely they are to speak up at all. House Bill 13 calls for increased reporting requirements that would impact donor records, without commensurate transparency for politicians — like regulated reporting for lobbyists. Those dollars and where they are spent remain largely private. This legislation, if passed, would further tip the balance of power in favor of those already in power. Certainly not in favor of the average Ohioan.
While Ohio House Bill 13 has seen two committee hearings in the House Committee on Government Oversight, it is still awaiting a move to the House floor for debate. For more about the state-level officeholders and candidates in Ohio, start with our Ohio Finance Summary. Join us on Facebook or Twitter to get the latest campaign finance data directly in your newsfeed.