When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Heerwagen decided to invest in an effort to reduce the influence of big money on politics, he considered a push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
“Then I realized I could be dead or not remember where my car keys were by the time that happened,” he said. Congressional proposals to tighten federal campaign finance rules seemed like long-shots, he concluded: “They just weren’t going to go anywhere.”
So Heerwagen looked to make a stand in the more hospitable political environs of California. After commissioning a poll and hiring political strategists, the former software executive and his team of election law experts are rolling out an unusual measure they hope to get on the ballot in November 2016.
Dubbed the Voter’s Right to Know Act, the proposed amendment would enshrine in the state Constitution the right to campaign finance disclosure — making California the first state to put it on par with the rights to speech and privacy, among other fundamental guarantees.
The measure also would require political ads to display their top “true donors” and overhaul the state campaign finance disclosure database to make it easier to track special interests.
The goal, Heerwagen said, is “to create tracing mechanisms that would enable people to find out who was behind any message, to uncover the secret money.”
The measure, which is being filed with the state attorney general’s office Wednesday, comes as the power of wealthy donors in politics has emerged as a prevalent theme in the 2016 presidential contest.
The issue has been taken up by candidates on the left and the right, helping propel the insurgent bids of contenders such as Republican tycoon Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running as a Democrat. Democratic former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton recently rolled out her plan to strengthen campaign finance rules, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) has railed against the power of lobbyists in Washington.
For all the rhetoric, however, efforts to overhaul the rickety federal campaign finance system are still largely frozen. Democrats in Congress have been unable to amass sufficient bipartisan support for proposals to require more disclosure or adopt public financing. And a gridlocked Federal Election Commission has taken no action as big-money super PACs work in close conjunction with favored candidates this cycle.
So proponents are looking to the states, hoping to notch victories that eventually will alter the national climate.
“If California leads the nation in elevating disclosure to our state constitutional level — if enough states do that — we’re hoping to get national attention,” said Gary Winuk, a former chief enforcement officer for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Winuk helped draft the Voter’s Right to Know Act along with longtime election law expert Robert M. Stern, who helped write the state’s seminal 1974 political reform act. Additional legal guidance came from the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based advocacy group founded by Republican election lawyer Trevor Potter.
California already has a robust set of disclosure rules. But Winuk said he discovered that even they were not sufficient when he led an FPPC investigation of nonprofit groups that were used to hide the identities of donors who pumped $15 million into ballot-initiative campaigns in 2012.
“The money stopped at a nonprofit,” Winuk said. “It never got back to the true donors.”
A wide array of advocacy groups across the political spectrum rely on donors who do not want their identities revealed, so the proposed measure probably would trigger a costly political fight.
“I suspect there are a lot of people who would see it as an effort to go well beyond the traditional efforts of disclosure that would threaten people’s right to privacy, and that probably would spark some opposition,” said Bradley Smith, a former FEC commissioner and founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports looser campaign finance restrictions.
Smith said the act’s requirement that political ads name their “top three true funders” is overly broad, calling the measure “junk disclosure.”
Supporters of the measure must collect nearly 600,000 signatures in 180 days to get on the ballot. Heerwagen — a political independent who declined to say how much money he has put into the effort — said he expects others in Silicon Valley to contribute to it.
He said he was heartened by the results of a June poll he commissioned from the Democratic firm FM3, which found that 69 percent of California voters think the lack of disclosure about political funders is a very or extremely serious problem — on par with issues such as education and poverty and second only to the state’s drought.
Advocates of stricter regulation of money in politics are watching the California effort closely. FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, who worked with Winuk at the state FPPC, said that establishing a constitutional right to information about political donors could create a new legal framework to support a host of campaign finance rules.
“It is a really innovative response to the issues that are being faced now in the political system,” she said.
The proposal comes as efforts to overhaul campaign finance rules this fall are gaining traction in states such as Maine and Washington. A bipartisan group in South Dakota is pushing a ballot initiative for 2016 that would crack down on coordination between candidates and PACs, among other measures.
“When you see states like South Dakota possibly coming online for reform, you realize the sands are shifting,” said Nick Penniman, executive director of Issue One, a group working to reduce the influence of wealthy interests in politics.
It remains to be seen whether that shift will shake up Washington anytime soon.
“The initiative in California just shows how pervasive this revulsion is in the body politic with the idea that the system is rigged and big money is running the show,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who sponsored a public financing measure that has been co-sponsored by 153 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Walter B. Jones (N.C.). “The natural extension of this movement out in states is to bring it to Washington.”