Disclosure of donors to campaigns favoring particular candidates or outcomes on public questions would help citizens see who is trying to steer an election. A bill to do that sat neglected in the state Legislature for a few years.
Then it was picked up to use as a weapon in the political squabbling among Democrats, who saw it as an opportunity to force a group favoring policies supported by Gov. Phil Murphy — New Direction New Jersey — to disclose its donors after it reneged on a promise to do so. To weaponize it, the bill was changed to also require disclosure of donors to groups that don’t back candidates or ballot issues, but limit their advocacy to issues and regulations. That made it objectionable to many independent nonprofits, both for its onerous reporting requirements and potential to discourage donors.
We had hoped that Murphy’s conditional veto of the bill would allow its overreach to be amended.
Instead, apparently fearing an override by the Legislature, Murphy agreed to sign into law a bill identical to the one he vetoed.
One group — Americans for Prosperity — already has sued, seeking to have the disclosure bill declared unconstitutional. The state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has said it will sue as well. The Brennan Center for Justice withdrew its support for the bill after its expansion and declared it “the most intrusive in the country,” with “a chilling effect on citizen participation in government.”
A federal court has barred enforcement of the law pending a decision on it and has scheduled its first hearing for Sept. 17.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the wide-ranging disclosure would inform the electorate and avoid corruption or the appearance of it. Exempted from such disclosure are groups that typically fund the two major political parties — the unions supporting Democrats and business associations favoring Republicans.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that while disclosure mandates “may constitute an effective restraint on freedom of association,” requiring donor disclosure in election campaigning may be constitutional if done carefully.
The New Jersey Law Journal, in a recent editorial, said the law had grown to cover nonpartisan advocacy organizations across the political and cultural spectrum. “So it will be left to the courts to restore the constitutional principles that we had hoped our legislators would honor without prompting,” said its editorial board.
Such is the wisdom in the design of American government, that its separate branches can keep things reasonable when one stumbles in its important duties.