Privacy in nonprofit political spending key to democracy

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Can Americans protect their privacy and their elections at the same time? Cynical politicians around the country say no. The rest of us should know better. Privacy is a key component of democracy. Americans vote in private booths, they discuss politics in private conversations, and they support causes by giving privately. Privacy shields Americans with unpopular views from retribution and harassment for their beliefs.

However, some politicians and activist groups view privacy as a threat to democracy. They are not content with current laws requiring candidates, political parties, and organizations that work to elect or defeat candidates to publicly disclose the names, addresses, and employment information of their supporters. They also want to expose donors to nonprofits, such as watchdog groups and organizations that advocate on legislation in Congress, whose involvement in campaigns is incidental.Campaign finance regulations are notoriously complex and can be a crushing burden for groups led by volunteers. Many would choose silence rather than risk hefty fines for violating laws they cannot understand. Those that continue to speak may see their support decline as Americans conscious of privacy shy away from the spotlight.The IRS recently dealt a blow to efforts to violate nonprofit privacy when it announced that it would no longer collect the names and addresses of donors to many nonprofits. In response, critics are outraged that this policy change opens the door to foreign spending in our American elections. That charge could not be more off the mark.

Let us get a few things straight. First, nonprofits can accept money from foreign sources, but they are legally prohibited from using it to support the election or defeat of candidates. The ban also applies to broadcast ads that mention the name of a candidate in the time near an election. Second, a donor name and address does not tell you whether it is a U.S. citizen or green card holder. Many Americans live abroad, and many people in the United States are not citizens or legal permanent residents.
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