Brad Smith, Kyle Melinn and Rich Robinson
Brad Smith (left), Kyle Melinn (center), and Rich Robinson (right).

In June, the Mackinac Center hosted a debate on disclosure of money in politics. It was held in partnership with the Michigan Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society and the League of Women Voters of Michigan.

Kyle Melinn, editor and vice president of the MIRS Newsletter, moderated the debate, which featured lively discussion between Rich Robinson and Brad Smith. Robinson advocated for limits on giving and strict disclosure laws, while Smith argued that disclosure invades privacy and that so-called “dark money” is only five percent of political gifts nationwide.

The debaters discussed several nuanced aspects of campaign finance law. Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, focused on how recent elections to the Michigan Supreme Court had been financed, with large amounts of undisclosed money. He suggested that allowing large private donations to judicial candidates could result in special considerations for people and companies in court. Adding that “disclosure is inoculation against corruption,” Robinson supported an amendment to the U.S. Constitution considered last summer in the U.S. Senate that would allow Congress to put limits on political giving and speech.

Smith discussed how his experience as a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission turned him against disclosure as he saw how complicated laws keep incumbents in office and potential newcomers out. He pointed out that disclosure laws are a relatively recent development and that the vast majority of money in politics has an easily identifiable source. Describing how extreme disclosure laws have resulted in people being harassed and fired from their jobs for relatively small political donations, Smith made the case for encouraging people to give and participate in politics without fear of retribution.

The event was well-attended, enlightening and thought provoking, and provided a clear understanding of the competing ideals surrounding political giving — a debate that will no doubt continue.