FEC Commissioner Proposes Redaction Process for Vulnerable Donors

May 13, 2024 | Brian Hawkins

On May 2, Federal Election Commissioner Allen Dickerson proposed that the Commission adopt a formalized redaction request policy for donors to political committees who value their privacy and fear harassment for their beliefs. The proposal would allow individual donors and political committees regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to request to have sensitive personal information redacted from public disclosure reports. Commissioner Dickerson’s proposal would standardize the process for the Commission to evaluate and receive exemption requests, a shift from the agency’s current ad hoc procedure when faced with such asks.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) requires political committees to report the name, mailing address, occupation, and employer of any individual who contributes over $200 in a calendar year. But this requirement is not absolute. The FEC has on numerous occasions exempted individuals and organizations who present a realistic probability of harm if their political contributions were publicly disclosed. Most prominently, for nearly 25 years, the Socialist Workers Party of America received an exemption from FECA’s disclosure requirements to protect its members from harassment and suspicion of socialist beliefs and affiliations that characterized America’s Cold War-era politics.

Commissioner Dickerson’s proposal would require the FEC to create a standardized form for requesters to formally submit their exemption request. Requesters would be required to identify if they are requesting the exemption as an individual contributor or as an organization seeking to redact their donor list, then testify to the probability of legitimate harm that warrants the exemption. Upon receipt of the application, the FEC’s Office of General Counsel will circulate the request among the agency’s commissioners for review, with automatic approval after 48 hours if no objections are registered. If any commissioner objects within the 48-hour review period, the request will be subject to a vote by the full Commission at the next executive session with four votes needed for approval. If granted, the exemption would permit the redaction of the requester’s name, address, and employer information in whole or offer a modification to reporting certain specified information. Importantly, the proposal also stipulates that all such applications for exemption are not to be considered public record.

This proposal generally concerns donors to campaigns and political committees, but it has broader implications for nonprofit advocacy, especially as some nonprofits may be forced to report their donor information to the Commission for certain communications. For one, the proposal acknowledges that vulnerable donors have a First Amendment right to support causes via donations and that this right outweighs the government’s interest in disclosure. As Commissioner Dickerson’s memo notes, donor disclosure requirements are not absolute. The Supreme Court has said donors who show a reasonable probability of experiencing “threats, harassment, or reprisals” from government officials or private actors must be excused from public reporting. Recent case law has articulated a narrow government interest in who funds constitutionally protected political advocacy, and this proposal is meant to reflect those developments.

Second, the proposal recognizes that contemporary political polarization has exacerbated the threats to donors supporting causes they believe in. With FEC disclosure reports published in an online database, sensitive personal information is easily accessible to radicals who wish to do harm to their perceived political opponents in a way that both wasn’t contemplated and was difficult to achieve when the Federal Election Campaign Act was enacted in the 1970s. For several decades, journalists and citizens interested in accessing disclosure information had to travel to the Commission to view disclosure records on microfiche, a far cry from today’s open environment on the internet. The current reality of easy access to sensitive personal information requires greater flexibility for individuals and entities that face ostracization from their family, neighbors, and coworkers, among others, for exercising their First Amendment rights.

The Commission is likely to discuss Commissioner Dickerson’s proposal at their upcoming meeting on Thursday, May 16 at 10:00 AM. The meeting is open to the public and available on livestream. People United for Privacy hopes all Commissioners take this significant proposal seriously, and we encourage their strong support.