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Political Participation and Civic Courage: The Negative Effect of Transparency on Making Small Campaign Contributions

Abstract

This study assesses whether public disclosure of campaign contributions affects citizens’ willingness to give money to candidates. In the American states, campaign finance laws require disclosure of private information for contributors at relatively low thresholds ranging from $1 to $300. The Internet has made it relatively easy to publicize such information in a way that changes the social context for political participation. Drawing on social influence theory, the analysis suggests that citizens are sensitive to divulging private information, especially those who are surrounded by people with different political views. Using experimental data from the 2011 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies, it demonstrates how individuals refrain from making small campaign contributions or reduce their donations to avoid disclosing their identities. The conclusion discusses the implications of transparency laws for political participation, especially for small donors.

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Notes

  1. See the Campaign Disclosure Law Database (2012).

  2. Doe v. Reed transcript at 12–28. Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S._2010, Justice Scalia, concurring in the judgment. Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/09-559.ZC4.html.

  3. SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, 599 F.3d 686 (D.C. Cir 2010); Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

  4. For review of literature, see Neumann et al. (2011).

  5. To be sure, some people lack trust in the secrecy of the ballot box, and many appear to divulge to others who how they voted. See Gerber et al. (2012).

  6. See Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) and Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S._2010.

  7. McClurg (2006) argues that the presence of political expertise in heterogeneous networks may offset the ambivalence and withdrawal from politics networks through the passing of information that helps people reject dissonant views.

  8. Interpersonal cross-pressures may be contrasted with intrapersonal cross-pressures. The latter situation occurs when individuals have multiple and overlapping social identities, which are not always compatible, such as a labor union member who is Republican.

  9. This work has been careful not to overstate these positive effects and indeed has refuted some of them. See, for example, McNeal et al. (2008) on trust.

  10. See Barker and Carman (2012), and Jacobson (2012).

  11. Because it was an off-election year, the CCES 2011 data did not include questions about other kinds of political participation such as putting up lawn signs, signing petitions, etc.

  12. When the sample is restricted to only ‘past donors’ the substantive change for the moderately cross-pressured (somewhat different views) or non-cross-pressured (same views) respondents is not much different from zero. The graphs for past donors are not shown here because, in this instance, there were insufficient data to run the models for past donors who are cross-pressured.

  13. The differences across thresholds are not statistically significant, which is not surprising given the relatively small sample size.

  14. These groups are not mutually exclusive. All respondents includes active/interest voters as a subset; active/interest voters includes past donors as a subset.

  15. The questionnaire asked respondents about the views of people in their local communities, which is the social context this study sought to assess. Presumably, however, such respondents could also feel some cross-pressure from being exposed over Internet to those in their virtual communities or have concerns about how such disclosure might affect future relationships (e.g., future employers).

  16. This dynamic does not appear to be driven necessarily by fear that giving up information will result in unwanted solicitations. Otherwise we would observe respondents opting out regardless of social context. However, the results indicate that the changes occur primarily among those who are surrounded by people with different views.

  17. An analysis that included more donors might conclude that a threshold higher than $100 would be better, particularly for federal elections.

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Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Brian Schaffner for introducing me to the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies and providing invaluable advice on the project. Thanks also to members of the Research Working Group at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, including Maryann Barakso, Bruce Desmarais, Rahsaan Maxwell, Tatishe Nteta and Jesse Rhodes. I appreciate the suggestions of Bruce Cain and Vin Moscardelli, as well as Caroline Tolbert, the discussant at the 2012 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, participants at the 2011 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies Sundance Conference, and three anonymous reviewers at Political Behavior. Funding for the purchase of data was generously provided by the Political Science Department and College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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Correspondence to Raymond J. La Raja.

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 1.

Table 1 Reporting requirements: disclosure thresholds

Appendix 2: Information About the Cooperative Congressional Election Study

The CCES is conducted over the Internet by YouGov/Polimetrix using a matched random sample design where a subset of respondents recruited for online surveys were selected by matching them on demographic characteristics to a randomly selected set of American adults. The pre-election survey (used in this analysis) was administered late September to late October. Individuals are recruited onto the YouGov/Polimetrix Internet panel using targeted online advertisements designed to assure a large and representative group of panelists. The online advertisement leads individuals to a gateway survey; at the end of this initial survey, respondents are asked if they would like to join the panel. Propensity score weights were developed to ensure that the sample represented the characteristics of the adult population according to the most recent Current Population Survey. The CCES samples were drawn from the YouGov/Polimetrix panel using a sample matching technique to ensure a nationally representative sample.

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La Raja, R.J. Political Participation and Civic Courage: The Negative Effect of Transparency on Making Small Campaign Contributions. Polit Behav 36, 753–776 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-013-9259-8

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Keywords

  • Political participation
  • Campaign contributions
  • Political transparency
  • Social influence theory
  • Political finance law
  • Internet and politics