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Rule Change to Obscure Political Campaign Contributions Narrowly Avoided at FEC

Proposed by a Trump-nominated FEC member, the rule would’ve supercharged the flow of dark money in political campaigns.

FEC Commissioners James E. "Trey" Trainor III (left) and Allen Dickerson (right) testify during a hearing before House Administration Committee at Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on September 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

All three Republican members of the Federal Election Commission on Thursday voted in favor of a new rule change that would have made it even easier for right-wing megadonors to hide their political campaign contributions from public view.

While the three Democratic members forced a deadlocked vote that prevented passage of the proposal, pro-democracy watchdogs said the unanimous vote by the Republican-appointed members shows the powerful commitment by GOP forces to increase the ability for wealthy individuals and corporate interests to mask their political giving.

FEC chairman Sean Cooksey was joined by his two Republican colleagues Allen Dickerson and James “Trey” Trainor III in backing the measure, but all three Democrats — Commissioners Shana Broussard, Dara Lindenbaum, and vice chair Ellen Weintraub — voted against to nullify it.

The proposal, Sludge reported earlier this week, would “supercharge” the flow of so-called “dark money” in political campaigns and was proposed by Dickerson, a Trump-nominated member who “previously worked at an anti-campaign finance regulation organization funded by conservative political megadonors.”

Dickerson’s proposed rule change, per the FEC, would have allowed advocacy groups or campaigns to “withhold, redact, or modify contributors’ identifying information in campaign finance disclosure reports” — reports currently mandated so that the public is made aware of who is funding such organizations.

Ahead of the vote, Scott Greytak, director of advocacy for Transparency International U.S., said the implications if it passed would reach far beyond the United States.

“With half of the world’s population living in countries that will hold a nationwide vote this year, the United States must embody and exemplify the importance of transparent and informed elections,” Greytak said in a statement opposing the proposal. “As democracy faces its biggest test yet around the world, it is difficult to believe that the world’s oldest democracy is even considering further eroding the public’s right to know who is influencing their elections.”

In a May 2 memo detailing his argument in favor of exempting donors from mandated disclosure requirements, Dickerson claims it is “a Constitutional right” because “Americans are entitled to make political contributions without being attacked, threatened, or fired.”

In view of such arguments, which right-wing forces have made for some time, Stuart McPhail, director of campaign finance litigation with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), has explained why such bad-faith misdirection is an effort to obscure what’s really going on.

While it’s true that some groups historically were granted exemptions for donor disclosures — including the NAACP and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose supporters and members faced coordinated, state-sponsored violence due to their political activities — claims like the one Dickerson makes, McPhail contends, fails on various merits.

“Campaign finance disclosure does not subject any viewpoint to discriminatory burdens,” McPhail explained in a 2022 blog post. “Rather, the aim of the laws has nothing to do with expression at all: they target transfers of wealth that could be and are used to corruptly influence officials, defraud voters and undermine democracy. Rather than state-sponsored suppression, dark money funders face criticism from concerned and less powerful citizens.”

It should be clear, he continued, that powerful “Dark money groups, their donors, and the candidates are trying to evade responsibility, not prevent retaliation.” When people like Dickerson make such moves, argued McPhail, they are trying to help groups and their allies “to avoid accountability by hiding their donors and silencing critics who may speak out against them.”

This is why Thursday’s votes in favor of such a proposal, said Craig Holman, Ph.D., a government ethics expert with Public Citizen, should be viewed with alarm.

“Commissioners of the FEC, regardless of party affiliation, have always defended the need for disclosure of campaign money sources — until now,” Holman said following the 3-3 vote. “Preventing the disclosure of the sources of political spending would deprive voters of critical information and undermine the essential need for checks on monetary power. It is truly disturbing to see half of the Commission now undermining that core principle, which is so important to an open democratic society.”

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