The sponsors of last fall’s Proposition 8, which rolled back the recently-won right of homosexuals to marry, are now complaining because some of their targets no longer want to do business with proposition backers.
That’s the essential reason for a lawsuit which threatens what small amounts of openness there are in California initiative politics.
The Proposition 8 campaign, known as ProtectMarriage.com, the Yes on 8 committee, doesn’t like the fact that some of its donors are getting unpleasant emails and losing business because of their involvement.
“Hundreds of people informed us of harassment, intimidation and threats that came to their places of employment as well as their homes,” chairman Ron Prentice of the Yes on 8 committee, complained to a reporter. “This could significantly influence participation in the future for social issues if this kind of intimidation continues to be allowed because of disclosure laws.”
And yet, all that’s been reliably documented are a few examples of gays and their supporters staying away from businesses whose owners were Proposition 8 donors. No physical harm whatsoever.
No one can question that the level of political discourse in California dropped significantly toward the gutter during last fall’s heated campaigns over both Proposition 8 and Proposition 4, the losing attempt to require notification of parents before teenage girls get abortions. But during the campaign, it was opponents of those measures who reported getting threatening telephone calls and emails.
Those people did not demand an end to transparency in initiative politics over reaction to their stances on the contentious social issues. And both the Yes on 4 and Yes on 8 committees were silent back then about nasty communications by their backers.
But now that the shoe is even slightly on the other foot, Yes on 8 threatens to close off all openness in initiative politics. There is, of course, little enough of that as it is. The Yes on 8 lawsuit nominally applies only to its own donors, but could set a widely-applied precedent if it wins.
Even without this, things are bad enough in proposition politicking. For one thing, legal loopholes allow proposition committees to hide behind misleading names. A classic example was Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions, a tobacco-industry funded group that sought via the 1994 Proposition 188 to eliminate all local laws against smoking in restaurants, offices and other indoor environments.
Court rulings allow other groups donating to initiative committees to withhold the names of their donors. As a result, voters will probably never learn who donated millions of dollars to a host of ballot proposition campaigns over the last 25 years.
Big donors whose names were never revealed fought off Proposition 25 early in this decade. It sought to force all TV commercials for and against propositions to list their five largest donors in a crawl across the screen in type sizes equal to the largest type employed anywhere else in the message.
Now the Yes on 8 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, seeks to end what little window voters still have on people and companies trying to sway their decisions.
Voters who learn that a measure or a candidate is funded by oil companies or the tobacco industry or the Sierra Club or labor unions often are strongly influenced by that information. Without it, they might have difficulty determining the real intent of many arcanely-worded measures.
The law now being fought by the Yes on 8 committee is the Political Reform Act of 1976, which requires public identification of all donors of $100 or more to state and local political campaigns. Their addresses, occupations and employers must be reported to the state, but addresses are left off the state’s Internet listing under a 1997 law designed to prevent harassment and stalking of donors.
No one can be certain how this lawsuit will turn out, as U.S. Supreme Court decisions give contradictory guidance. The high court held in 1976 that mandatory campaign disclosure laws are valid even down to donors of as little as $10 because of the public’s interest in knowing about possible sources of corruption in politics.
But six years later, the justices allowed the Socialist Workers Party to conceal contributors because of past attacks and threats they received.
In fact, there have been no known attacks this time, although some Proposition 8 backers say they’ve been threatened.
The bottom line: No matter how voters feel about same-sex marriage, all Californians will be deprived of vital information if this lawsuit succeeds.