Organized People, Not Organized Money

For Immediate Release:

Contact: Susan Lerner

March 15, 2011


Organized People, Not Organized Money

Last week at a hearing of the NYC Campaign Finance Board, the Board asked good government groups about member-to-member communications and whether they should be treated as independent expenditures subject to reporting and disclosure rules. Responses revealed many different approaches, and revealed questions concerning organizations communicating with tens of thousands of their members, as if the size of the communication, or its layout, in some way changes its nature.

For Common Cause/ New York, the issue is resolved by looking at the underlying purpose for seeking disclosure of the source and nature of independent expenditures.

Common Cause/NY does not believe that member-to-member communications should have to be disclosed as electioneering communications. When individuals join organizations, it is with the understanding that their membership dues will be used to support the aims of the organization. In fact, members generally join such organizations because of those aims. Members are not confused about who is communicating with them when the source is an organization they support with their contributions or through their volunteer activities.

However, when independent expenditures are used to fund communications disseminated to the general public in addition to members, disclosure should be required. Without disclosure, the public doesn’t have enough information to assess the credibility of the claims or allegations made in ads run by committees unrelated to candidates. Hiding the identity of the special interests that pay for these communications can also deny the candidates who are the targets of the statements a fair chance to respond. All too often, large independent expenditure campaigns are conducted in the name of a group hiding behind an innocuous identity cloaking the special interests that bankroll the electioneering tactics. Who wouldn’t support Cute Puppies for My Favorite Cause Committee?

Some local unions may have as many as 125,000 members, and corporations can have many hundreds or thousands of shareholders. These groups can be powerful forces influencing the outcome of elections, but it isn’t the size of the electioneering communication that creates a disclosure requirement. The motivation behind disclosure requirements is to provide what the voter needs to know to make an informed choice at the polls.

Meaningful disclosure allows the voter to assess the credibility of the source of the election-related information at the time the information is received. Member to member communications satisfy this standard without further regulation. Communications to the public paid for by independent expenditures generally do not. Accordingly, those making independent expenditures directed to the general public should be subject to detailed reporting and disclosure. This increases transparency in our city elections and provides voters with the information they need.

The source of independent expenditures should also be identified by more than just the innocuous named committee sponsoring them. The names of the three largest donors contributing $25,000 or more to the independent expenditure committee should appear on all advertising and campaign literature.

Common Cause/New York is concerned about organized money, not organized people. It’s a good thing when people join together to develop positions on important public policy issues and work to convince others to support or oppose candidates or specific positions or legislation, and we have no desire to quash such communications. But it is imperative that we correctly identify their sources. That way the voters, not smart campaign consultants and ad agencies, get to decide elections

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