Should campaign contributions be anonymous?

By , Guest blogger

Although it addressed only direct spending by corporations and unions, the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling has rekindled broader concerns about the power of money in politics. Over at the Washington Post, Marc Geffroy and R.R. Reno argue that our traditional approach to these concerns –in particular the requirement that campaigns disclose their contributors — might be exactly backwards. Instead, they suggest that we should move in the other direction:

There is a way to break the iron grip on access that campaign contributions provide. The United States should establish an anonymous campaign finance system. We need a federally chartered clearinghouse for campaign donations that matches donors to designated, registered candidates and political action committees. Under such a system, politicians would not know who supports their careers, er, causes.

It’s a simple but powerful concept. The identity of the campaign donor would be kept secret, which would break the wink-and-nod link between money and the legislative process

Imagine the confusion on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress wouldn’t know exactly whom to reward with special carve-outs. Union leaders might say they’re big supporters of certain candidates, but who could know for sure?

The proposal raises some obvious practical questions about designing a truly anonymous system (many of which are addressed in Voting with Dollars by Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres). But leave those aside for a moment and ponder how this approach might (or might not) address whatever concerns you have about the role of money in politics. Disclosure is a double-edged sword: we can see who is giving how much to whom, but so can the whom.

Marc and R.R. finish their argument with an analogy to the secret ballot:

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

If you think requiring anonymity for political donations wouldn’t work or is impractical, ask yourself: Does the secret ballot work? Imagine politicians paying you if you promise to vote for them. You can’t — for good reason. The secrecy of the voting booth prevents anyone from knowing whether you are true to your promise. The same would hold for an anonymous campaign finance system.

On this point, I think they identify one benefit of the secret ballot, but overlook at least two others. First, the secret ballot protects voters from politicians that would retaliate against them if they cast the “wrong” vote. That’s the flip side of the paying-for-a-vote argument. Second, the secret ballot protects voters from anyone else punishing them for their vote.

Which leads to what I think may be the most interesting question about their anonymous contribution proposal: How many people out there don’t make campaign contributions because they don’t want relatives / neighbors / friends / employers / activists to know which candidates and causes they are supporting? And would it be a better world if they felt free to make their contributions anonymously?

Update: R.R. Reno suggests a related question: how many people and businesses feel they have to make contributions in order to avoid reprisals from elected leaders? In other words, to what extent are contributions defense rather than offense?

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