Does Disclosure Chill Speech?

The title of this post is a big current question in campaign finance circles, in part because conservatives in recent years have pushed back on the goal of many liberals to expand disclosure laws to so-called dark money groups.  A recent tweet from a Texas Democratic congressman called out Trump donors from his district, causing an outcry from those concerned that campaign finance disclosure creates the potential for activists to harass donors for their support of particular candidates and causes.

In my Gov 3020 (Money and Politics) class, we read an article from political scientist Ray La Raja called “Political Participation and Civic Courage: The Negative Effect of Transparency on Making Small Campaign Contributions.”  The article investigates whether donors (in a hypothetical scenario) are likely to give less to candidates if they know their dollar contribution will be disclosed.  La Raja varies the disclosure threshold (any amount, >$50, >$100) and looks specifically at whether donations decline for respondents who report that their family or neighbors hold political views different from them.  These “cross-pressured” donors might be particularly worried about the disclosure of their contributions.  And if, as a result, they don’t give or give less, than we might reasonably infer that their speech had been “chilled.”

I wanted to see how Bowdoin students would respond to this type of issue, and so I largely replicated the design in a survey of Bowdoin students.  The control group got the following prompt:

“Assume you had up to $1500 that you would consider contributing to a political candidate. If a candidate is running in your district who closely represents your political views, how much, if anything, would you consider donating to his or her campaign?”

No disclosure information is noted in this set-up. I calculated in this group the mean dollar contribution.  It was $367.

The treatment groups (3 of them) got the same prompt but with an additional sentence:

a. Please note a campaign finance rule: names of donors are made public on the Internet.

b.Please note a campaign finance rule: names of donors contributing over $50 are made public on the Internet.

c. Please note a campaign finance rule: names of donors contributing over $100 are made public on the Internet.

In my first cut (and lumping all treatment groups), I split students into two categories based on a responses to a question about self-placement on an ideological scale.  Students around the mean of the scale and to it’s left were placed in one category, which I’ll term “liberals.”  The student body as a whole is quite liberal, so I would assume these students do not feel “cross-pressured” on campus politically.  The second set of students, “conservatives,” are those to the right of the mean plus one-half standard deviation.   These students might feel like outcasts in a sea of left-of-center students. How much do these two sets of students contribute relative to the mean of the control group?  See below.


Liberals give over $100 more than the control group, while conservatives give about the same as the control group.  The vertical bars above and below the point represent two standard errors on either side.  So liberals will give more than conservatives, but there isn’t a ton of evidence here of “chilling” since conservatives give about what the control group does.  As we discussed in class, this is less chilling of cross-pressured students than cheer-leading from liberals.  That is, disclosure might compel those students to flaunt their advocacy by donating more than when that information is not obviously known to be publicized.

But perhaps this measure of cross-pressure is not a good one.  To mimic La Raja, I asked students about the political views of their family and friends and whether students are open or not open to making friends with people who hold different political views.  On this last question, I assume that a student who is open to making friends across the aisle is someone who is comfortable being cross-pressured (a decision some students pushed back on in class).  These results are below.


One can contest this second measure of cross-pressure, but either way, both groups give more than the control group, meaning that disclosure prompts more contributions across the board–not less.  Additional evidence against “chilling.”

Do these results suggest that, in the debate over more/less disclosure, advocates of anonymity in political contributions should just “chill out”?

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