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Columns

We Know Everything About Your Political Donations

By Oliver S. York, Contributing Opinion Writer

There was a firestorm last week when Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro tweeted the names of 44 of his constituents who had contributed the maximum amount to President Trump’s reelection campaign. I’ve got news for you: Those 44 names barely touch the surface of the publicly available data about individual campaign contributions.

If you’re on the mailing list for any of the 26 candidates still dreaming of the White House, you’ve heard that presidential campaigns had to report their quarterly fundraising numbers in the middle of July. When August rolled around, that information became freely available. Thanks to the Federal Election Commission, I can find out everything about your political donations — and so can anyone else with an appetite for spelunking through obscure public datasets.

By “everything,” I mean detailed information about every contribution over $200 made to a congressional or presidential campaign for the last 20 years. (Plenty of donations under that limit also appear in the data.) If you’re a high contributor — more than $500 at a time — I can see every contribution for the last 40 years. “See” also has invasive subtext: The dataset will show to whom you donated, the exact dollar amount of your contribution, and what date the transaction occurred. One more thing — attached to your name is your occupation, your employer, and your home zip code.

I’m all in favor of open data — I’m studying academic economics — but this is too much.

In a world where foreign powers have demonstrated themselves all too eager to meddle with American elections, we should all be able to agree that the integrity of our elections is threatened if we allow a whole bunch of untraceable money to slosh around our electoral system. We should also agree that voters deserve to know if their elected officials are accepting large donations from political interest groups. The FEC claims that its new individual contribution database tracks broad strokes in campaign finance. But if the original goal was to understand where campaigns get their money, the FEC has under-delivered on tracking campaign-level financial information and over-delivered on the tracking of individual contributions.

Ignoring for a moment the exposure of occupation and home zip code, there’s a quiet idealist in me that wonders why it’s such a bad thing to have one’s political contributions be publicly known. Shouldn’t political donors have the courage of their convictions and put their mouth where their money is? Wouldn’t we all vote — with campaign cash as well as at the ballot box — with a little more community-mindedness if others knew where we stood? As outraged as Republican commentators were by Castro’s tweets last week, maybe this is the price we pay for protecting campaign donations under the law as a form of political speech. If you want protections, you very well better make that speech out loud.

But I reject that idealistic impulse because I know that it takes a high form of privilege to bear the brunt of politically unpopular choices. We should hold on to the privacy of individual, small-dollar campaign contributions just as vociferously as we hold on the notion of the secret ballot. I wear my politics on my sleeve, but not every American is prepared to do that, and we shouldn’t require that of anybody. What if you’re not a Democrat in a place like San Francisco or Cambridge?

It’s easy to imagine how individual contribution data can be misused. What if a quick search of the contribution database becomes a standard way for employers to “get a feel for” potential hires? And what if there’s a false positive — a quick search of the database reveals that a retiree with my name living in South Carolina donated $28 to Trump last year.

Should we really expose small business owners — and their employees — to the threat of boycotts because they quietly express their politics in the form of small online donations to locally-unpopular partisan committees? If we want to reject discrimination based on political affiliation, we can’t make that information publicly available en masse.

A few hours surfing the database may affect my individual relationships. At home, I noticed that a relative made a political contribution contrary to the political affiliation I always projected onto him. At school, I saw the itemized contributions of multiple professors. At work, I had always tiptoed around the topic of Trump with a colleague who I knew to be a Republican. The FEC data revealed donations to the president’s reelection campaign. Could that change the way I talk to him? Maybe.

I also enjoyed some less nefarious uses of the data. Which random political campaigns sweet-talked my grandparents into giving money? Who are my neighbors supporting in the early days of this primary? I was able to look at the contribution records of my state senator at home and my favorite candidate for the Cambridge City Council.

But satisfying mere curiosity isn’t enough to obscure the plain truth: In trying to tackle campaign finance reform, the FEC has built a juggernaut of a privacy violation.

Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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