Arlington, Va.—Grassroots political activism is a hallmark of American representative government. From town hall meetings and statehouse rallies to talk radio, blogs and “meet ups,” Americans are constantly finding new and innovative ways to participate in politics. But a new report has found that the lobbying laws of at least 36 states threaten to strangle these grassroots efforts in red tape and regulation, thus reserving the political field for established interests who have the means and know-how to overcome these government-imposed burdens.
In “Mowing Down the Grassroots: How Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure Suppresses Political Participation,” published today by the Institute for Justice, University of Missouri economist and campaign-finance scholar Jeffrey Milyo found that these complicated and confusing regulations, backed by threats of fines and often jail time, shut ordinary citizens out of politics—with little or no benefit to the public. The report is available at: https://ij.org/report/mowing-down-the-grassroots/.
“Grassroots lobbying—where people don’t reach out to elected officials but merely discuss political issues with each other—is an American tradition that has grown immensely more important as communication technology has advanced, so that now just about everyone is one email or tweet away from a call to political action,” said Dr. Milyo. “But the sad truth is that nowadays, you need more than the courage of your convictions and a soapbox if you dare to speak up on public issues. That is because in most states simply urging fellow citizens to take political action, such as contacting their legislator about a pending bill, may trigger a maze of regulations and legal restrictions under state lobbying laws.”
Under these laws, so-called “grassroots lobbyists” must register with the state and file frequent and detailed reports about their contributions, expenditures and activities even if they never contact an elected official. Such regulations set a legal trap for unsuspecting citizens; other than professional politicians and lobbyists, no ordinary citizen would think to consult a lawyer and register with the state before speaking out on a public issue.
Dr. Milyo’s research revealed that these regulations are complex and not accessible to ordinary people. The first paragraph of Massachusetts’ new lobbying law, for example, scored 0.9 on a 100-point scale in a readability test. Going by such tests, it would take 34 years of formal education to understand that paragraph; not even a doctorate from MIT or Harvard would be enough.
In previous research, Dr. Milyo tested the ability of ordinary citizens to navigate similar regulations, those governing participation in a ballot-issue election. He asked 255 people to fill out the registration and disclosure forms for a ballot-issue advocacy group. They correctly completed only about 40 percent of tasks. (The report, “Campaign Finance Red Tape: Strangling Free Speech and Political Debate,” is available at http://www.ij.org/CampaignFinanceRedTape.)
In “Mowing Down the Grassroots,” Dr. Milyo looked at five tasks required of grassroots lobbyists in Washington state that are also required of ballot-issue groups—registration, reporting expenditures and reporting three different kinds of contributions. In the ballot-issue experiment, the percentage of people who correctly completed these tasks ranged from just 7 to 56 percent, suggesting that Washington’s red tape is a serious burden for grassroots lobbyists and is likely to expose them to penalties and fines for mistakes.
Today, the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter joined two citizen activist organizations to challenge Washington’s law and vindicate the First Amendment rights of citizens to speak to one another about the issues affecting their lives without having to first register with the government. For more on the case, visit: www.ij.org/3315.
“Many grassroots organizations will simply forego speaking because the burdens of disclosure are so high and the costs of incorrectly reporting so steep,” said Institute for Justice Washington Chapter Executive Director Bill Maurer. “This is unacceptable under the First Amendment, which unreservedly protects speech about politics. Our goal in this case is to begin rolling back regulations on grassroots activism in the states and ensure that efforts to pass such regulations at the federal level are stopped once and for all.”
Dr. Milyo found that the public gains little from grassroots lobbying regulations. He pointed to previous research that found that few people actually seek out information about contributors to ballot-issue campaigns or even know where to find that information—but many will be deterred from political activity by the public disclosure of their personal information. In “Disclosure Costs: Unintended Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform” (available at http://www.ij.org/DisclosureCosts), IJ Director of Strategic Research Dr. Dick Carpenter found that 60 percent of respondents would be less likely to get involved in a ballot-issue campaign if it meant publicly disclosing their name, address, employer, to whom they donated and how much. There is no reason to think backers of grassroots lobbying campaigns would feel any differently.
Yet citizens face fines and in some places jail time for engaging in political activities that violate grassroots lobbying laws. Dr. Milyo reported that in New York, the maximum criminal penalty is $5,000 and four years in jail, equivalent to arson or riot; and in Alabama, it is $30,000 and 20 years, an equivalent punishment for kidnapping.
Dr. Milyo concluded, “Regulation of grassroots political activity puts ordinary citizens at risk of legal entrapment, leaves disfavored groups open to abuse from partisan regulators and robs unpopular speakers of the protective benefits of anonymous speech. Worst of all, these very real costs come without any real public benefit. Elected officials would do better to listen to constituent concerns or debate ideas in the open, as the framers of the First Amendment intended, rather than mowing down the grassroots with regulation.”