Rhode Island’s Political Spending Transparency Law Survives Supreme Court Challenge

Rhode Island’s political spending transparency law has survived a US Supreme Court challenge.

The state’s groundbreaking 2012 law that requires enhanced disclosure of spending by outside groups known as the Independent Expenditures and Electioneering Communications Act was the state’s response to the 2010 Citizens United decision. It requires groups spending to influence Rhode Island elections, independent of the candidates themselves, to report information about their donors who funded the advertising. It is modeled after the federal DISCLOSE Act sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).

“The Supreme Court wisely decided to let stand a well-reasoned decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals upholding Rhode Island’s groundbreaking campaign finance disclosure law,” said Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion. “The law was passed in 2012 to protect Rhode Island elections from being overwhelmed by dark money and it remains an important tool for voters who want to know who is spending money to influence their votes.”

The Rhode Island law requires groups spending $1,000 or more on electioneering ads to disclose donors that gave at least $1,000 to fund the ads. It also requires ads run by certain groups to include “top-five” disclaimers identifying their five largest contributors, among other provisions.

“By denying certiorari today, the US Supreme Court has ensured that Rhode Islanders will continue to have the right to know who is trying to influence our elections,” Marion said. 

“Particularly in this environment of rampant disinformation and unlimited political spending, voters need to know who’s behind the advertisements they’re seeing,” Marion said. “Voters need to be able to ‘consider the source’ of information when deciding whether or not to believe it. And if the ‘source’ is shielded, then we have no way of judging motivations behind the information or whether it’s trustworthy.”

In 2019, the Gaspee Project and Illinois Opportunity Project challenged the law, seeking to spend thousands of dollars distributing election-related mailers to Rhode Island voters without identifying themselves or their large contributors to the public. 

In August 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island dismissed the complaint, finding the disclosure provisions constitutionally serve the state’s vital interest in equipping voters with essential information about special interests spending to influence their vote.

In September 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law, ruling that it satisfies the exacting scrutiny test and is narrowly tailored to the state’s important interest in an informed electorate, and stating that “a well-informed electorate is as vital to the survival of a democracy as air is to the survival of human life.”

Today, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a further appeal. 

The law was first proposed by Common Cause Rhode Island in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which upheld federal disclosure requirements for independent expenditures.

The federal DISCLOSE Act has been included in voting legislation passed by the US House, but has not been passed by the Senate.

Read the US Supreme Court denial of certiorari here

Read the First Circuit ruling here.


Read our September 16, 2021 press release here.