On Dec. 27, 2013, Governor Rick Snyder signed a law that doubles the amount of campaign contributions individuals can donate. The law also solidifies non-disclosure laws that hide the names of individual and corporate donors from the public, inhibiting proper democratic oversight of the election process. During his gubernatorial campaign, Snyder blasted the lax regulations on issue ads. He ran on the promise that he would force donors to reveal their identities as well as reduce the amount of spending in political campaigns. Transparency is crucial to the fair and democratic process of government. Snyder and the Michigan legislature should introduce more legislation increasing transparency, rather than promote non-disclosure.
The new bill protects financial donors to issue ads by allowing them to do so without revealing their identities. Although issue ads don’t specifically endorse a specific political candidate or proposal, the issue ads are overtly political. They usually attack a specific official’s policy and can contain a line that tells viewers to proactively take a stance on the issue by voting, calling political officials, etc. The ads have been highly successful in the past and some have even been labeled attack ads.
The new law requires these ads to reveal the political group funding the ad, but it doesn’t require identification of financial donors. This allows political groups to fund biased ads that may be damaging or factually-questionable without public repercussions. Groups that place robocalls and issue ads will be required to provide an “authorized by” disclaimer, but those statements won’t give any information about donors or support groups.
The new law will now double campaign donation limits, from $3,400 to $6,800 for candidates for statewide office, from $1,000 to $2,000 for candidates for state Senate, and to $1,000 from $500 for candidates for the state House. The limits will increase slowly over time. In the 2010 gubernatorial race 99.992 percent of Michigan residents did not reach the limit for campaign donations. This will only allow more affluent Michigan residents to have a more powerful say in Michigan’s gubernatorial race.
This legislation also solidifies the non-disclosure laws that ensure the anonymity of donors to political issue ads. Unable to discern which individuals or what political groups may be paying thousands to push an agenda, voters participate in government without knowing which issues are promoted by special interests. With a history of controversies with transparency, including the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund, Snyder should be aiming to improve Lansing’s transparency rather than further restricting public access to information.
This new law is a complete turnaround from Snyder’s platform position in 2010, when he published an administrative report, which argued that the anonymity of political donors harmed Michigan voters. The publication argued that the combination of large political contributions and anonymous donors created a “perfect storm where citizens become disenfranchised with politics … unable to follow who is trying to influence policy and for what reasons.”
The expanded funding cap furthers the movement towards monetizing governmental policy by increasing access to the wealthiest of individuals. It promotes support for special interest groups and encourages a system where the most affluent citizens are able to heavily influence government policy and elections. Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations and wealthy individuals have been able to donate ludicrous amounts of money in support or opposition of a candidate under their first amendment right. This creates a system in which candidates are focused on appealing to who may make the largest donations instead of focusing on the people. Snyder’s new law only further propels this trend toward buying officials, alienating the people from the democratic process.