Political-Donor Disclosure Rules Need Reform, in the Age of Twitter Mobs

Representative Joaquin Castro speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., in 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
As it stands now, if you donate more than $200, you risk the wrath of activists who want to destroy you for supporting a candidate they oppose.

Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, is so passionate about his liberal politics that he donated $1 million to Senate Democrats last year. Last Friday, he made a more dubious contribution to liberalism when he lashed out at David Koch, the libertarian industrialist and philanthropist, who had just died following a long battle with prostate cancer.

“I guess I’m going to have to reevaluate my low opinion of prostate cancer,” Maher said on air, to much audience laughter.

He then doubled down on his hatred for Koch and his brother Charles, provoking even greater applause and cheers.

“He and his brother have done more than anybody to fund climate-science deniers for decades. So f*** him, the Amazon is burning up, I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope the end was painful.”

Maher wasn’t alone. Among the liberal celebrities who celebrated Koch’s death was actress Bette Midler, who used the “F-word” to attack Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James for honoring Koch. She then apologized for initially tweeting that Charles Koch had died, saying she didn’t want to give “false hope.”

Liberal activists attending a Bernie Sanders event at the Minnesota State Fair chimed in. Many cheered after an audience member noted that “oligarch David Koch” had died. To his credit, Sanders said he wouldn’t applaud someone’s death: “We needn’t do that.”

Classless behavior isn’t a monopoly of one side in politics, and I have no doubt that there will be cruel and crude things said by some Republicans on the Internet when left-wing mega-donor George Soros dies. But in some left-wing circles, anger at their political opponents has reached toxic levels and is now threatening free-speech rights.

Earlier this month, Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas, took to Twitter to shame some of his constituents. “Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors [$2,800 per person] to Donald Trump. . . . Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’” He then listed the names of 44 individuals and their employers — including a dozen people who said they were retired, and one who is a self-described “homemaker.”

Castro refused to apologize. “No one was targeted or harassed in my post. You know that. All that info is routinely published,” he insisted. There is a difference, however, between campaign-donation information being available on a website and having that data sent by a member of Congress to his 208,000 Twitter followers — many of whom will further distribute it.

Sure enough, several Trump donors were harassed as a result of Castro’s tweet, though few wish to discuss it publicly for fear of encouraging more abuse.

“I think you’re a scumbag, and I f***ing despise everything you stand for,” said one caller who called the voicemail of one donor. “That’s why I’m calling you and filling up your voicemail with a bunch of bullsh*t. So, enjoy that. I will make sure to post this number and extension all over the Internet.”

Donald Kuyrkendall, one of the San Antonio donors named in Castro’s tweet, said he backs Trump because of his economic policies, not his stance on immigration. Castro’s “inference that we as donors to the Republican party and Trump specifically makes us racist and somehow involved in the El Paso shooting is saddening,” he told CNN.

Kuyrkendall says that he and his wife, who is Latina, now “have concerns” about the safety of their three grandchildren.” They go to school,” he said. “There’s crazy people out there, in case [Joaquin Castro] doesn’t know that.”

As Brad Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told me, “it’s hard to imagine that Castro was trying to do anything other than say ‘Go make life miserable for these people.’”

Federal disclosure law requires anyone who gives more than $200 to a candidate to publicly disclose their name, employer, and address. The contribution limit hasn’t been raised for inflation in over 40 years, which means that many ordinary middle-class Americans are captured by the disclosure law. In a world where take-no-prisoners political thuggery is rampant, the possibility that disclosure can be used to harass and target people is real.

Take the example of what happened to several people in the wake of California’s 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which, while later overturned, stipulated that marriage in California could be only between a man and a woman. Some may recall that Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, was forced to step down for contributing $1,000 in support of Proposition 8.

But others who lacked Eich’s resources also lost their livelihood. Scott Eckern, the artistic director of the California Musical Theater in my hometown of Sacramento, was forced to resign after activists learned on a government database that he had contributed $1,000 in support of Prop 8.

Marjorie Christoffersen, manager of the famous Los Angeles restaurant El Coyote, recently made famous in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was forced to resign. As I noted at the time at NRO:

El Coyote had endured a month of boycotts and demonstrations because Christoffersen had contributed $100 to Prop 8. Fellow employees at El Coyote vouched for her kindness to gay employees — when one of the restaurant’s employees died of AIDS, for example, she had personally paid for his mother to fly to Los Angeles to attend his funeral. That didn’t matter either. And neither did the fact that El Coyote sent $10,000 to gay groups to “make up” for Christoffersen’s contribution. The boycott continued, and Christoffersen was forced to leave.

Similarly, it didn’t matter to his jubilant and sneering critics that David Koch gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian and to fund cancer research. Charities that he and his brother controlled also helped shepherd landmark federal criminal-justice reform into law last year. They also fund free-speech programs at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University; a rebirth of debate societies at black colleges that were the basis of the film The Great Debaters; and a project to collect oral histories from neighbors who have different political views.

But Democrats in Congress are convinced that a network of right-wing donors is a key obstacle standing in the way of their defeating Donald Trump. Democrats are ignoring the fact that the Koch family pointedly refused to support Trump in 2016. As part of Democrats’ umbrella election-reform bill, they would further expose the private information of political donors. Abuses would be inevitable.

Instead, we should encourage bipartisan efforts to minimize abuses such as those of Joaquin Castro and also to ensure that voters have the transparency they need to hold elected officials accountable.

Rick Hasen, an election-law professor at the University of California at Irvine, strongly disagrees with my views on voter fraud and many other election issues. But we agree that we all face new privacy concerns in an Internet age. The Castro tweet, however, does not amount to any “unconstitutional harassment” of donors, he asserts.

“The Internet has changed the calculus,” he told CNN. “As part of policy, we might well raise the disclosure threshold to $1,000 or $2,000, so people of modest means who are making small contributions don’t get caught up in these strong policy debates in our very polarized society.”

If such a threshold had been in place back when Proposition 8 passed, perhaps Brendan Eich, Marjorie Christofferson, and Scott Eckern might not have been punished for expressing their political views.