It’s legal to tweet the names of all of Trump’s donors, but it’s probably not a good idea

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) caused quite a stir recently when he tweeted a list of San Antonio residents who had made large contributions to Donald Trump’s campaign. As some commentators pointed out, Castro did nothing illegal. Anyone can look up the names of Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign supporters. It may not have been the wisest move for a politician to send out such a large list.

It seems reasonable for aggrieved Democrats to decline to have their dinners at Outback Steakhouse (because of its parent company’s support of Republican congressional candidates), to stop working out at SoulCycle, or to switch their allegiance from the Chicago Cubs to the White Sox.  

There is no reason to patronize businesses whose political habits one doesn’t like, however, most of those on Castro’s list were just regular citizens. Despite concerns about the propriety of Castro’s tweet, his actions provide an opportunity to educate the voting public about our campaign contribution disclosure laws.

For nearly half a century, candidates, by law, have been required to disclose to the Federal Election Commission the names, addresses and employers of any individual who gives a total of $200 or more to their campaign. 

This threshold was set in order to provide some level of anonymity for donors. A balance needed to be struck between the public’s right to know who is funding campaigns and individuals’ freedom from reprisal. At the time the $200 threshold was set, the Internet did not exist, and generally only journalists or political consultants went to the trouble of looking at lists of contributors. Today, anyone can do it online.  

Disclosure has historically been one of the few campaign finance policies liberals and conservatives agree upon. Both sides have contended that disclosure is important in warding off corruption. Conservatives have often argued that disclosure is more important than limiting contributions — as long as we can see who is giving, politicians are unlikely to do special favors for even their large donors. 

Some critics of Castro’s move have contended that he is weakening the case for disclosure. If contributor lists become weapons, the argument goes, conservatives will push for a rollback of disclosure laws. This seems unlikely. 

The fuss over Castro’s tweet shows that the public is unaware of how easy it is to look up campaign finance data. Even when people know the data is available, they may think it’s taboo to look closely at it. When I teach courses on campaign finance, I show my students how they can look up the contributions of their professors, their neighbors, or even their parents.  

They tend to be amused by this, but invariably someone will suggest that this information really ought to be private — that we shouldn’t have the ability to spy on our neighbors in this way. Even when they support disclosure in theory, in practice, they tend to find it disturbing.

One can learn a great deal about a candidate by looking at where his or her contributions come from. The geographic distribution of contributions, the average size of contributions, or the economic sectors represented among contributors can tell us a lot about what a candidate will do in office. We don’t need to know the identities of the individual contributors to do this, however. 

Campaign contributors have historically wanted to be recognized for their donations. If we did away with disclosure the public would not know who was supporting candidates, but candidates and their parties might not know this either. Parties and candidates also mine each other’s contributor list — something that would become more difficult without public disclosure.

Recall that the $250 threshold was set a long time ago, and was never indexed to inflation in the way that contribution limits have been. We could argue that the disclosure threshold should be increased, however, if the court is eager to do away with disclosure rules, this would be an even larger reversal than the Citizens United decision.

If contributors are uncomfortable with having their identities revealed, there is an easy solution — give less. In the meantime, however, it’s healthy to remind ourselves why we have campaign finance disclosure. 

If we’ve reached a point where we are willing to scan these lists looking for people in our neighborhood who’ve supported Trump, and change our doctors or dentists because of their support of this individual, it is our right to do that, however, I believe doing so indicates a much bigger problem that’s harder to fix than our contribution disclosure laws.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Tags Campaign finance Campaign finance in the United States Citizens United v. FEC Corporate personhood Donald Trump Joaquin Castro Politics of the United States Public law

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