I attended the hearing on July 13 in Santa Fe on the proposed campaign finance disclosure rules issued by the office of the Secretary of State. As expected, there were people representing groups strongly for and against the new rules. Though many of those who testified in favor of the rules thought the proposed contribution limits to be too low and the reporting requirements too onerous, they believe in the principle that large sums of money spent by a handful of wealthy people on campaigns and advertising distort our democracy and diminish the voices of citizens to the point where most of us aren’t heard at all.
The arguments against disclosure were articulated by experts. Privacy concerns were one of their key arguments — that if donors were disclosed, it would subject them to harassment. Maybe so, but as one person stated, if these donors have the courage of their convictions, they should be proud to state them. Their secretive behavior suggests that they know that their proposals are not in the best interest of the country, so they hide behind a curtain of anonymity.
One reason that politics is so divisive today is the extreme positions presented in political advertising being promoted by the very same donors who wish to remain anonymous. More transparency might serve to civilize the debate and force partisans to base their arguments on facts, which would be far more educational to the citizens than ultra-partisan grandstanding.
Another argument by those opposed to the disclosure rules postulates that issue ads and attack ads serve to educate the citizens, and that without these ads, citizens would not have the information they need to make informed decisions. This argument hinges on speculation that disclosure would have a chilling effect on free speech, and that this would deprive citizens of a point of view. This holds no water. Most of the ads that these groups pay for are at best half-truths, and at worst, “alternative facts” and outright propaganda. The purpose is not to educate but to deceive. They seek to brainwash citizens so that they might be persuaded to vote against their own interests. With so much fake news and conspiracy theories floating around, the last thing people need is propaganda paid for by those who are out to buy our political system. This does not promote free speech or democracy.
The new disclosure rules will let New Mexico voters know who is trying to influence their votes. However, the rules may be tested in court, and some of them could be overturned. Until we have a federal constitutional amendment to correct Citizens United and allow Congress and states to set limits on dark money spending for political campaigns, this threat to democracy will persist.
Laura Atkins is a concerned citizen working to protect our Constitution, democracy, and American values and ideals.