Many people are inspired by the supposed principles of campaign finance reform. These principles drew crowds to various events around the Capitol over the last week, featuring various speeches including one from a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission. These gatherings were bolstered with tweets about democracy awakening along with signs and screeds about corporations not being people.
But up in Massachusetts, as democracy was “awakening” down here in D.C., the very result of campaign finance reform is yet again being used to fatigue—worse, to punish—the citizens who are participating in democratic elections.
On Tuesday, April 12, seven Democrats faced off in a primary election to fill a seat in the Massachusetts Senate. One of the candidates, Dan Rizzo, was previously the mayor of Revere, MA, an experienced politico. A few days before the election, speech happened—that ever-so-effective political speech, the eleventh-hour mailer.
The mailer alleged that Rizzo “endorsed Republicans like Mitt Romney, Scott Brown and John McCain.” It included pictures of Rizzo with all three of these Republicans. Obviously, this is quite an accusation in a Democratic primary, and one that is not supported by mere pictures. But for Democratic voters in a multi-candidate primary, it might have been more than enough to cause voters to pick one of the other six candidates instead of Rizzo. (Rizzo lost, plausibly due to other reasons.)
Although the mailer included a standard disclaimer naming the political committee that paid for it—“Mass Values PAC”—along with a mailing address, the group apparently did not follow this up with a 24-hour disclosure report, a requirement added to the commonwealth’s already-extensive campaign finance laws in 2014.
Although the mailer itself included most of the information required for this 24-hour report, Mass Values PAC’s report was not filed until a few days later. So, Rizzo filed a complaint with the commonwealth’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. If Mass Values is charged with violating the law, the prosecution can seek up to $5,000 for this violation or “imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than 1 year.”
The Rizzo campaign is using a silly, intricate and duplicative disclosure law to retaliate against Mass Values PAC. Its statement about its complaint is laughable:
“It’s disappointing to see the Mass Values PAC make deliberately false claims to mislead voters in the final days of the election. However, it’s even more upsetting to see them subvert a state campaign finance law designed to ensure transparency. The least we can do is hold them accountable,” said Tim Devlin, a Rizzo campaign staffer, in a statement.
It is far more upsetting that state campaign finance law may be so easily used to punish political participation. Wrapping itself in platitudes similar to those echoed around the National Mall for the last week, the Rizzo campaign’s complaint is sure to find support from the campaign finance “reform” community. Though Mass Values PAC was transparent on the mailer—that is, the document voters actually read—it was expected to file a report online, too (a source seldom utilized by anyone except enterprising journalists and political opponents). And now someone could go to jail for not doing so.
With draconian campaign finance laws like this—intricate, duplicative, and counter-intuitive—democracy becomes reserved for professional campaigns with lawyers, accountants or professional staff. While idealists play catch-and-release with symbolic arrests in support of such “reform,” average Americans and even those active in politics face fines and even real jail sentences simply for speaking out. The platitudes of campaign finance reform are overshadowed by the reality of campaign finance law. It is a problem for the free speech of every American and undermines the democratic values reformers claim to support.