Should we have more privacy for political donors?

After a Congressman in Texas decided that “doxxing” donors to President Trump in his own district was a good thing, Indiana state representative Jeff Ellington proposed removing addresses from campaign disclosure forms. This is a good idea, and should be passed by the state legislature. Congress should follow up with reforms for federal elections financing.

I think it is good to disclose donations, but the numbers are laughably low. The threshold for disclosing the address and employer of a donor to a federal candidate is $200. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over $1000 today. The disclosure trigger should be raised to at least $1000 and then automatically indexed to inflation so that the trigger amounts are consistent.

(Full Disclosure: Jeff is a friend, and has been since 1996.)

The problem we face now is someone who simply donates to a candidate can be subject not just to public shaming, but the destruction of his career or business, a cascade of obscene harassment, death threats and even potential violence for fully legal participation in the political process. This is a broader cultural problem where disagreement on policy cannot be tolerated by extremists on both sides, but there is no reason to make that harassment easier – especially by disclosing home addresses.

Now, there are good reasons to disclose donations. Having campaign funding be public information tells us who is funding the campaigns of our elected officials, and what kind of influence they might have on how that elected official votes. This is something that is useful to know not only at the national level, but at the local level as well. It is arguably more important at the local level, because the numbers are so big at the national level that a single donor will have little real influence even if he contributes the maximum of $2800. Congressional campaigns often run into the millions.

But there is also a good reason to not disclose home addresses of donors, because of the risk of harassment. Granted, it is not difficult to find a home address, through voter registration data or property transfer data, both maintained by county government. Not disclosing home addresses in campaign finance data will not prevent people from being doxxed, but it also does not provide an easy list of where people live, compromising their personal safety.

I hope we see reforms to protect donors’ privacy and safety, but in our current political environment I am not hopeful. A decade ago, this might have been something that was possible, but now that partisan battle lines are being drawn over donor data I am not sure this is going to go anywhere. The only real solution right now is to categorically reject any and all doxxing of donor data for the purpose of harassing and/or threatening them, and to oppose any politician who engages in this behavior. This would be a part of cooling down our rhetoric generally. Sadly, I am not hopeful for that outcome either.

This is going to get worse, not better.

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