October 17, 2010

Levitt: A "Democracy Facts" Product Label?

Rick has graciously invited me to write a campaign-finance guest post as well, focused on disclosure. And I also offer my thanks for the opportunity.
Democracy Facts Label
Rick has posted a number of campaign finance items recently with a similar theme: significant donors sponsoring political ads not in their own names, but in the names of organizations with substantial positive valence and suggesting widespread support. Americans for America and the Concerned Taxpayers of America are only the most recent examples. The names seem designed to enhance the credibility of the message, by encouraging viewers and voters to believe that they represent the shared opinions of lots of like-minded individuals.

In a new paper, I've suggested a new model of disclosure, equipping viewers to see for themselves whether there are 2 like-minded concerned taxpayers, or 2 million, supporting a particular communication. The model, based on the now-ubiquitous "Nutrition Facts" and "Drug Facts" labels on supermarket and pharmacy shelves, involves a label for "Democracy Facts" (at right, and linked here).

The proposal builds on a long line of work, most recently by Lloyd Mayer (here) and Richard Briffault (in a piece from the next issue of the Election Law Journal), suggesting that it may be more informative (and less burdensome) to concentrate on the identities of the most significant funders, publicly disclosing others only in aggregate. The label, designed to appear right within a particular communication mentioning a candidate, requires identification of the top five funders, following models in Washington State and the stalled federal DISCLOSE Act. To this "top-five" disclaimer, I suggest adding two straightforward stats: the number of the ad's financial supporters within the candidate's jurisdiction, and the portion of the support generated by the top five funders. Together, those stats give a rough estimate of the shape of support behind a political ad (including the relative role of micro-donors). And the whole thing is wrapped in a comparatively easily digestible package.

One of the features of a system like this is that it recognizes that there may be administrative recordkeeping costs in tracking financial support (mild for some, more serious for others), and attempts to align those costs with the incentives of campaign speakers. If American Americans for America wants to be seen as speaking on behalf of a broad base, it will have an incentive to to trace its donors (and the group-based donors to its donors) more vigorously. And the rest of us have a better gauge for deciding how seriously we should take American Americans' assessment of what's best for us.

Posted by Justin Levitt at October 17, 2010 01:38 PM