But the Piper Fund website also acknowledges it receives money from anonymous givers and “numerous other individual donors.” It does not explain what share of its funding comes from these unnamed donors.
The fund’s director, Melissa Spatz, said the Maine donation came from a “pooled fund.” The group exists to reduce the influence of money in politics and build a fair court system, she said.
A number of other nonprofit funders of the Maine ballot measure also disclose their donors but in a limited manner.
For example, Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance reform group Every Voice gave nearly $230,000, according to state records. Its website lists donors who have given $5,000 or more since 2011 but includes in the list “Anonymous.” Adding a layer of complexity, it also receives funds from other organizations, including the Piper Fund, whose donors can’t be fully traced.
“We go above and beyond what is required of us by law to disclose our donors,” Every Voice spokeswoman Laura Friedenbach said in an email. “We will continue to follow the rules no matter if there are changes in disclosure requirements.”
The president of one of the ballot measure committees for the Maine initiative, Andrew Bossie, emphasized that his group disclosed every donor. But its affiliated educational nonprofit, which gave money to the committee, does not disclose its donors. The result: The source of that money isn't clear to voters.
While he favors disclosure, Bossie said, it’s not fair for campaign finance reform groups to have to disclose every donor.
“Asking one particular group to play by a different set of rules just because they’re looking to change those rules is a little bit of an unfair expectation,” he said.
And it’s different when groups are giving to ballot measure campaigns, Bossie said, because donors cannot corrupt a ballot measure like they could a candidate.
But giving voters more information about who’s financing a ballot measure is a good enough reason to ask for disclosure, even if the measure can’t be corrupted, said Rick Hasen, a campaign finance regulation expert at University of California, Irvine, School of Law.
Hasen pointed to California’s Proposition 16 in 2010, when voters rejected a plan to make it harder for municipalities to form their own electric utilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, which stood to lose customers if cities started their own utilities, provided nearly all of the campaign’s $46 million in funding.
“Once the public learned about that, the measure was defeated,” he said. “And so disclosure in ballot measure elections provides voters with valuable information.”
Using conservative arguments
The D.C.-based nonprofit Food & Water Watch, which advocates for clean water and safe food products, last year joined more than 60 other organizations in signing a letter asking President Barack Obama to force government contractors to disclose their political spending.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in our elections by donors who remain anonymous, leaving voters in the dark about the people and interests to whom candidates are beholden,” the letter stated.
But Food & Water Watch has also invested dollars in elections from unknown sources.
The group spent more than $600,000 since 2012 supporting ballot measures that would have required labels on genetically modified foods, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
In its 2013 annual report, the most recent available online, Food & Water Watch emphasizes that it does not take money from corporations or governments and lists some foundations that have given to it. However, it thanks “anonymous funders and supporters” and does not list individual donors.
“That’s in order to protect them from blowback from the groups that we’re critiquing,” said Kate Fried, policy communications director for the group.
But protection from blowback is the same argument that many conservatives make against mandates that nonprofits disclose their donors, or that government contractors disclose their political giving to such groups. They often point to the 1958 case NAACP v. Alabama, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state could not force the civil rights group to divulge its donor lists, as its contributors could face threats or persecution.
“It’s obviously hypocritical,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative nonprofit that does not disclose its donors and argues against disclosure. “It also proves our point that many donors do value their privacy and won’t give money if they know their information is going to post.”