Mandatory Disclosure for Ballot-Initiative Campaigns

By Carpenter, Dick M., II | Independent Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Mandatory Disclosure for Ballot-Initiative Campaigns


Carpenter, Dick M., II, Independent Review


One of the most controversial election-related issues in recent decades unquestionably has been campaign finance. On the heels of the Watergate scandal, campaign-finance laws at both the state and the federal levels drew much attention (Huckshorn 1985). In 1974 alone, twenty-four states adopted finance-reform laws, and by 1984 every state had some form of campaign-finance legislation. Although the typical provisions involved monetary limitations of various types and sizes (Gais and Malbin 1997), broader reform efforts included public financing and, the subject of this research, financial disclosure (Edwards 1995).

These reforms are often discussed in candidate elections, but campaigns related to state ballot initiatives also operate under finance laws, including disclosure. In fact, disclosure laws for ballot initiatives first appeared in the opening decades of the twentieth century (Key 1936). They became more popular as the number of citizen initiatives and the amount of money spent in those campaigns increased dramatically over time (Magleby 1994; Citrin 1996). Although spending on initiatives remained fairly stable into the 1980s (Owens 1986), the past two decades have witnessed an increase in spending on ballot initiatives that sometimes surpasses amounts dedicated to candidate elections (Reich 1989; Magleby and Patterson 1998). In the face of such spending, reformers have called for changes to existing campaign-finance laws to be applied also to ballot initiatives or for the creation of new laws.

One of the central features of such laws is public disclosure. In fact, in the world of campaign-finance regulation, disclosure represents the cornerstone of all state reform efforts (Davis-Denny 2005). In the name of transparency and access to information, these provisions require initiative committees to collect and report personal information about contributors, including names, addresses, contribution amounts, and even employers (Gais and Malbin 1997). Issue committees also must often report all expenditures, from the routine, such as political consultants and advertising, to the minutia, such as yard signs and supplies for lemonade stands (Huckshorn 1985). These reports are then made available to the public, often on state Web sites.

The justifications offered for such laws are simple. First, because money allegedly corrupts politics, all contributions and expenditures should be made public to keep the process "clean" (Seidman and Gilmore 1986; Meier and Holbrook 1992; Edwards 1995; McBride 1995; Hoesly 2005). Such support for disclosure began early in the twentieth century. For example, the 1928 Republican Party platform stated: "The improper use of money in governmental and political affairs is a great national evil. One of the most effective remedies for this abuse is publicity in all matters touching campaign contributions and expenditures" (Republican Party 1928, para. 91).

Such sentiments continue to be expressed today. Ann McBride decries the "corrupt campaign finance system" (1995, 15), and others point to the undue influence that special interests, "big business," and campaign consulting firms have on the initiative process (Thomas 1990; Boehmke 2005; Hoesly 2005). According to David Magleby and Kelly Patterson (1998), forced disclosure deals with these problems.

Second, under the banner of "more is better," it is claimed that information on contributions will further assist rational voters in deciding how to vote (Gerber and Lupia 1999). According to Arthur Lupia (1994) and Herbert Simon (1957), voters are cognitively limited decision makers, processing only a small fraction of the information to which they are exposed. Rather than engaging in a comprehensive information search and then deliberating to achieve an optimal choice, individuals tend to satisfice, relying on cues to make judgments.

These cues take several different forms, including expert and celebrity opinion (Magleby and Patterson 1998), media messages (Magleby 1989; Lupia 1992, 1994; Bowler and Donovan 1994; Gerber and Lupia 1995; Joslyn and Haider-Markel 2000), and, most relevant to this study, groups' opposition to or support for initiative campaigns (Miller, Wlezien, and Hildreth 1991; Gimpel 1998; Rob and Haider-Markel 2003).

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