Campaign Finance Red Tape in Colorado

Congress Shall Make No Law, Steve Simpson

You know there is something too complex about campaign finance regulations when someone as smart as political entrepreneur Diana Hsieh runs into trouble in her dealings with the law.

Hsieh details some of the difficulties of complying with Colorado’s campaign finance laws for ballot issue committees on her blog. Hsieh, who is featured in our most recent study of campaign finance laws, is a Colorado activist and blogger who got wrapped up in campaign finance red tape when she decided to speak out against Colorado’s Amendment 62. Hsieh co-wrote a policy paper arguing against passage of the Amendment, which she and her co-author Ari Armstrong funded with a pledge drive on Hsieh’s blog. But because they intended to raise over $200 to fund their effort, they were defined as an “issue committee” under Colorado’s campaign finance laws and had to register with the state and comply with complex and onerous administrative and reporting regulations. As Diana points out on her blog, while the regulations can often look straightforward, the devil is often in the details: “[T]he laws are just not clear. As a result, I’ve tried to do whatever seemed like the safest option open to me. I don’t have an army of lawyers to guide me… and even if I did, that might not be enough! With every wrong move, I risk $50 per day in fines.”

Diana Hsieh is not the only one who’s had problems with the laws. In 2006, a group of neighbors outside of Denver spoke out against the annexation of their neighborhood into a nearby town. They put up No Annexation lawn signs, sent around post cards, and spoke to neighbors and were promptly sued by the proponents of annexation for failing to register and comply with the issue committee regulations. IJ now represents them in a First Amendment challenge to the laws. The case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

IJ commissioned an economist from the University of Missouri to study the burden of these regulations on free speech a few years ago. He created an experiment in which groups of people were given a simple fact pattern and asked to fill out the forms for issue committees. Out of 255 participants, not a single participant filled out the forms correctly and the average score was about 40 percent correct. In the real world, each of these individuals would have faced fines and harassment from their political opponents.  The study is available here.

But, as Diana points out, even if the regulations were not burdensome they would still “be a blatant violation of every person’s free speech rights. People should not have to register with the government to speak their minds. They should not have to register with the government to donate money so that others can speak for them.”

With all of the complaining about “undisclosed” money being spent on campaign ads, it’s worth remembering that freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege that must be justified to everyone who does not like what we say.

Used with the permission of the Institute for Justice.

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