Privacy snags campaign finance postings

Opponents to online campaign reporting are playing the online privacy card to limit the amount of personal data revealed regarding political fund-raising.

3 min read
The big spenders bankrolling U.S. elections may soon find their donations listed in cyberspace, but the scattered legislative efforts to mandate electronic filing of campaign contributions have hit a snag in some states.

Opponents to online campaign reporting are playing the online privacy card to limit the amount of personal data revealed regarding political fund-raising.

Hard-copy campaign finance filings include a contributor's name, street address, occupation, employer, and, of course, the amount of the contribution. On the Internet, however, the mass availability of such personally identifiable data has come under fire by consumer advocates and government agencies, who fear the information could be inappropriately used.

In California, a bellwether state for Net legislation, the Assembly Republican Caucus wants to suppress some of the data that would be posted online if a Net filing bill introduced by state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) becomes law.

Karnette's bill, SB 49, would require candidates and other campaigners to report finances online by June 1, 2000, if their total contributions exceed $100,000 in primary elections and $50,000 in general elections. The legislation requires that the digital files duplicate the hard copies. But the Republican Caucus is calling for the omission of the street address, city, and employer's name.

"The issue of privacy of individuals who have given to campaigns is completely ignored in this bill. What of the 'stalking' victim that is suddenly found by their attacker because of their listing on the Net?" the caucus analysis asked. "SB 49 should be amended to address these real-world concerns than simply adopt an irresponsible 'it's new, it's wonderful' approach to new technology."

Privacy advocates and even a strong backer of the bill, the California Voter's Foundation, say withholding the street address wouldn't devalue the documents' meaning. But without a city and employer, it would be hard to draw a clear picture of who is financially fueling U.S. politics, they add.

"The place of employment is important. For example, you can see if large companies' employees all donated to one campaign," said Dave Banisar, staff counsel for Electronic Privacy Information Center. "When you're talking about local races, the city can also be important to track outside interests who are contributing money to pass the local issue."

The emerging privacy debate could derail California's digital sunshine bill, leaving the state without a mandatory system, although a volunteer method has been recently set up by Secretary of State Bill Jones.

"It's an attempt by some people to stall this issue," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "They're using this issue of stalking as a red herring. I don't want to see people using the campaign information to start telemarketing to donors. But what it comes down to is balancing a public's right to know with an individual's right to privacy."

The struggle to balance online privacy with full campaign finance disclosure is causing such a stir that 12 state election officials will focus on the issue when they meet in Chicago on Monday. Their overall goal is to merge their individual labors to bring election filings into the digital age.

Other states already post the full local election finance filings online, such as Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Washington.

In Illinois, a bill requiring online disclosure of campaign dollars recently passed in the state legislature and is awaiting the governor's signature. The bill aims to sidestep a current Illinois law requiring citizens to register their name and address when checking campaign finances.

The legislation attempts to shield identity of journalists and residents who investigate filings, but the issue of donors' privacy never came up during debates over the bill.

"We have not actually taken a look at that," said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), the sponsor of the bill. "At this point, in time I do not see a problem with it. It's a public document."

In addition to state endeavors, Congressional Rep. Merrill Cook (R-Utah) introduced the Campaign Finance Sunshine Act earlier this month, which would require that all federal election contributions be posted on the Net within 24 hours of being filed with the Federal Elections Committee (FEC). The FEC already accepts filings electronically but doesn't post individual donations online.

"The bill would require full disclosure," said Martin McGuiness, Cook's aide. "We think it will gain bipartisan support, be signed by the president, pass constitutional muster, and go into effect by 1998. This is not difficult for the FEC to do and we wouldn't have to appropriate more money for the filings to be put online."