University of Southern California

Rethinking Donor Disclosure After the Proposition 8 Campaign

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Note by David Lourie
From Volume 83, Number 1 (November, 2009)

Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that amended the state constitution to deny marriage to same-sex couples, passed by a small margin in November 2008. The campaign was contentious, well funded by both sides, and the subject of much media attention. After Proposition 8 passed, however, the debate about same-sex marriage in California was far from over. Shortly after the election, Proposition 8 opponents organized protests against certain Proposition 8 supporters and their employers throughout California and in other states. For example, opponents protested at the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Los Angeles because the church and its members raised a significant amount of money to support Proposition 8. Opponents also organized boycotts of businesses whose owners or employees donated to support Proposition 8. Several of these protests had negative repercussions for donors. For example, following threats of boycotts of his musical works and his employer, Scott Eckern, the longtime artistic director of the California Musical Theater, resigned from his position after it was revealed that he donated $1000 to Proposition 8. Marc Shaiman, the composer of the music for Hairspray, told Eckern that he would not let his work be performed in the theater due to Eckern’s support for Proposition 8. U.S. law requires a secret ballot for both candidate and issue elections, so how did opponents of Proposition 8 identify the donors to Proposition 8? The answer lies in disclosure laws. In California, as in most states, campaigns must publicly disclose certain information about individuals who donate to a ballot measure or candidate. California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, as amended, provides that all campaign donations of $100 or more must be published on the Secretary of State’s website, allowing the public to easily search for the names of campaign donors online. Further, not only must the donor’s name and the amount of the contribution be disclosed, but the donor’s street address, occupation, and employer’s name—or, if self-employed, the name of the donor’s business—must also be disclosed. On the federal level, campaign contributions to federal candidates are also now easily accessible to the public online. Federal law requires disclosure of individuals who contribute $200 or more to a candidate. This information can be viewed online through the Federal Election Commission’s (“FEC’s”) website, as well as on other websites. Not only has technology increased the availability of donor information online, but political entrepreneurs have also taken the FEC’s campaign finance data and made it even more accessible online, allowing users to search the data by multiple categories. For example, the Huffington Post, a popular blog, runs a search engine called “Fundrace 2008,” which allows a user to search for donors to 2008 presidential candidates by a donor’s first or last name, address, city, or employer. The website boasts about the easy access to the political leanings of nearly anyone a user knows of: “Want to know if a celebrity is playing both sides of the fence? Whether that new guy you’re seeing is actually a Republican or just dresses like one?”

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