a clearinghouse to make political contributions anonymous

At the Institute H21 symposium last week in Prague, Stein Ringen described his proposal for a campaign finance clearinghouse. I gather Ringen also defends this idea in How Democracies Live: Power, Statecraft, and Freedom in Modern Societies (Chicago, 2022), which I have not yet read. My summary is based on his talk alone.

The idea is that you could give money (up to the legal limit) to candidates, but you would have to make your contributions through a clearinghouse that would transmit the funds to your chosen recipients without telling them who gave them the money.

Normatively, this proposal accepts that individuals have a right to support communications by their favored candidates. Like Ringen, I am unsure I agree with this premise, but it has been upheld by the US Supreme Court since 1971 (in Buckley v Valeo). Also, there are times when being able to support insurgent candidates with many smallish contributions increases competition and challenges incumbents.

At the same time, the proposal denies that candidates should be able to tell who gave them money, because contributions should never purchase access, goodwill, or influence.

Ringen said that he would allow contributors to inform candidates that they had given money. That’s a form of speech that would probably be protected by the US Supreme Court (and I am generally skeptical about banning speech and then policing the ban). However, the clearinghouse would make such communications quite noisy. Many donors would not take the trouble to inform candidates that they had given, and some would lie about having done so. They might even falsely tell both sides that they were financial supporters. As a result, candidates would have a much more ambiguous picture of who was supporting them financially. And that ambiguity would be good.

The secret ballot has a similar rationale. You can might want to bribe or coerce other voters, but you can never tell how they actually voted, because you cannot see their ballots. Privacy blocks the emergence of markets for votes. The same could happen to campaign finance if the money flowed through a clearinghouse.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.