April 26, 2013; The Wall Street Journal, “Washington Wire”

The Federal Election Commission issued a curious ruling last week with huge potential implications. Ever since campaign finance rules were implemented in 1974, the FEC has regularly granted a special exemption to donor disclosure rules to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The original basis for the exemption was the assertion by the SWP that it is a controversial fringe party and those supporting their political activities might be singled out for harassment and discrimination. That exemption has now been extended to 2016.

The justification included in last week’s FEC ruling finds a different basis, however. While acknowledging the potential for harassment of donors, Commissioners used the opportunity to point out the lack of recent support for the Socialists. The FEC noted that only 11 individuals would have been subject to having their names disclosed without the exemption being in place. FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub wrote, “SWP received only $1,222 in contributions from 2009 through 2011, and only approximately $16,087 in 2012. Only 118 people contributed to the committee in 2012…. And despite fielding a presidential candidate in every election since 1948 and numerous other candidates for Federal, State and local offices, no SWP candidate has ever been elected to public office in a partisan election.”

This ruling has potential implications for other donor disclosure rules, particularly those which currently protect donors to 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations like Organizing for America on the left, and FreedomWorks, Inc., and Crossroads GPS on the right. Particularly for the conservative-leaning organizations, defenses for keeping donor names secret have included the threat of harassment of, or discrimination against, donors and their business interests. Recent corporate support of political campaigns and political organizations have resulted in negative publicity, boycotts, and even legal action in elections like those involving California’s controversial Proposition 8.

In its exemption ruling, the FEC recognizes the importance of disclosure and transparency in political activity, and then acknowledges there are allowable exceptions to that ideal. What remains to be settled includes whether the criteria for the exceptions can be extended to other groups, including those small in numbers but large in financial backing, and whether corporate donors are entitled to the same protection from harassment that the FEC has afforded to Socialists since 1974. The FEC may also have to document how it identifies “fringe” groups, as many would argue that most or all politically active 501(c)4 organizations would qualify as “fringe.”—Michael Wyland