Shining a Light: Success of the Massachusetts Disclosure Law
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), “outside” spending in elections—political spending not coordinated with parties or candidates—has skyrocketed. In the 2012 federal election cycle, outside groups spent a staggering $1.1 billion, an over 200% increase from 2008. At the state level in Massachusetts, outside spending has soared too, in both statewide and legislative races. Total independent expenditures have jumped from $4 million in 2006, to $11.5 million in 2010, to an unprecedented $20.4 million in 2014!
Outside spending in Massachusetts, if it continues to grow by approximately 76% between statewide cycles, as it did from 2010 to 2014, will exceed official candidate spending, which decreased approximately 4% in the same time period, within six years.
The jump in outside campaign spending is being fueled largely by a dramatic increase in contributions from hidden donors, or “secret money.” Across the country, independent expenditure groups often face few requirements for disclosing where they get their money. This secrecy means the public is unable to find out who, or what, is funding a given campaign and thus to whom or what the candidate may be beholden. This infringes on a voter’s ability to make informed choices at the ballot box, and to hold officials accountable for actions that could be taken on behalf of campaign funders.
Fortunately, Massachusetts is ahead of the curve, due in large part to Common Cause’s efforts to secure transparency laws that protect the public’s right to know. For example, Common Cause successfully championed legislation in the 1980s that requires reporting of independent expenditures. In 2009, the organization won reforms requiring disclosure of the funds behind electioneering communications, also called “sham issue” ads (ads that are clearly intended to influence the election even if they do not explicitly say “vote for” or “vote against” a particular candidate). Most recently, in 2014, Common Cause led a victorious lobbying campaign for the Massachusetts Disclosure Law, one of the toughest in the country, which took effect in August of that year. Key provisions of the act include:
- Organizations must list their top five contributors above $5,000 in TV or print advertisements
- Super PACs must disclose their donors within 7 days of running a paid advertisement (state law previously required disclosure after the election)
- Enforcement agencies have clearer authority to regulate funds funneled through intermediary groups by corporations, organizations, and individuals to avoid disclosure.
- Disclosure of Internet and email advertisement electioneering communications is required