Political Donations and Privacy

Professor Solove questions whether people’s political donations should be so public:

Pursuant to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), people’s campaign contributions must be accessible to the public. I’ve long found this to be problematic when applied to the campaign contributions of individuals. Certainly, information must be reported to the government to ensure that campaign contribution limits aren’t exceeded. But I don’t know why it is the public’s business to know what candidates I’ve given money to and how much.

The discussion that follows in in the comments is quite interesting.

I tend to agree that the system does sometimes appear to be upside down. Surely this data is used as the raw material for important political discussions such as McCain’s receipt of oil money after changing his mind on oil drilling. But I also often see it being used to vet or appraise individuals, not to watch the politicians that receive money.   When Bob Novak struck a pedestrian in downtown DC, the cyclist that chased him down was reported to be an Obama supporting lawyer. Does that fact add much to the story, besides give it a possible partisan taint? Delaware’s Republican Senate candidate has been disciplined for being an Obama supporter — a fact that came out in part because his donations were published.

This data is quite a goldmine for profiling and direct marketing. One can usually identify high income individuals, and then make some good guesses about their business (their employers are listed) and political interests. Addresses are listed, not just zip codes.

The chilling effects on donating are real. Conversely, the donation pages on the McCain and Obama campaigns do not make clear that the records are going to be publicly available. At most they mention reporting. Individuals trying to maintain address privacy will have to abstain from contributing, or not report their real address. That’s only if they know about the reporting and disclosure of information.

But there are some interesting tales to be told from the individual level data. An example:

It turns out that Hess executives aren’t the only ones who gave such huge sums to elect McCain — generosity towards McCain apparently extends down into lower levels of Hess staff. A lower level employee gave the same, too, and so did her husband, even though he works for Amtrak.

The FEC filings show that Alice […], who’s identified as a Hess office manager, and her husband, Pasquale […], who’s described as an Amtrak “track foreman,” each separately donated $28,500 to the RNC-McCain fund, which is called McCain Victory 2008. They gave the money on June 24th, the same day that eight other Hess execs and family members each shelled out the same amount.

This looks suspicious because it would be inappropriate to funnel money via some other member of the corporation, and its unlikely that people with those job titles would have 57K to give.  I should add that it appears that other public records come to their rescue in an update:

In fairness, the […]’s may be better off than initial appearances would suggest. Real estate records show they purchased a North Carolina property in 2006, and in 2007 took out a loan to buy another property in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Given that it is unlikely that we will be able to keep this data completely confidential, I suggest we come up with limitations on how it can be used. Of course, journalism, investigative and research uses are going to continue. But perhaps we can limit commercial uses? Or even more interestingly — find a way that people know when their donations have been accessed?

Posted: August 5, 2008 in: