TALLAHASSEE — Combatants over fundamental election rights and Florida campaign law have brought their battle to federal court with both sides saying their conflicting positions bolster the democratic process.
In a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle last week, attorneys for a group of Sarasota area voters squared off against the Florida Department of State over how much information citizens must divulge if they choose to enter the political fray.
Attorneys representing the three residents want Hinkle to invalidate a state law that requires groups to register with the state if they spend more than $500 trying to influence a campaign. The group says that a requirement that it disclose its identity on radio ads limits its ability to get its political message out, and that a requirement that such groups disclose their donors is a violation of their freedom of speech, and that they shouldn’t be subject to the same requirements as big political groups.
Attorneys representing the state counter that Florida law is a straightforward attempt to ensure voters know who is funding political advertisements weighing in on candidates, local issues or proposed constitutional amendments.
“The electorate has a right to know where the money is coming from and where it is going,” said Ashley Davis, assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of State.
Group members were trying to pool their money to run radio commercials in opposition to Amendment 4, which dealt with growth management, and failed to pass in November. State elections officials ruled Florida election law required the group to register, elect a treasurer and provide an accounting for expenditures.
The group, then four-strong, sued, saying the law should not treat them like larger political action campaigns, which have elaborate disclosure and reporting requirements.
“These rules should not be applied to any unincorporated group that just wants to have its voice heard,” argued Paul Sherman, an attorney with Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based group that has taken up the case for the three remaining plaintiffs.
This is the conservative institute’s second challenge to Florida election law in as many years. The Institute in 2009 successfully challenged Florida’s law governing “electioneering communication organizations,” which made it illegal for political spending committees to mention a candidate or ballot issue without registering with the state. The lawsuit effectively deregulated these free-spending, so-called 527 groups, although legislators last year revised and re-enacted many of the earlier standards.
Asked by Hinkle if a broad ruling could open the door for the return of anonymous contributors who could donate large sums without public scrutiny, Sherman pointed to a 2010 law that requires the identification of anyone who spends more than $5,000 trying to influence an election.
The case’s First Amendment implications are obvious and mutually exclusive. Do grass-roots voters get a right to have their voices heard in 2012 without having undue burdens placed on them? Or, do other voters have a right to know where the message is coming from?
Email Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.