Voters Agree: Donations Are a Legitimate Form of Political Engagement

May 9, 2024 | Brian Hawkins

Last month, the Rainey Center for Public Policy published a survey conveying voter sentiment towards political engagement in the upcoming presidential election. The results are a repudiation of fearmongering about the role of money in politics, with respondents overwhelmingly favoring political donations as a legitimate form of political engagement while rebuking doxing and harassment.

“The public appears to draw a firm distinction between peaceful, lawful political activities and more aggressive, confrontational ones that could infringe on the rights of others or undermine democratic institutions. This pattern holds across party lines, a welcome sign for the health of our democracy,” the report explains.

When asked how they planned to engage in the upcoming elections, respondents listed donations to a political party, candidate, or organization as three of the top five activities. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they planned to donate to a party, while 21 percent said they’d donate to a candidate, and 19 percent said they’ll donate to a political organization. The top form of political engagement that respondents planned is “to talk to a friend about a cause that matters to them,” with 41 percent planning to do so; while respondents also planned to engage by volunteering for a candidate, writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, and attending a protest or demonstration.

Similarly, when asked to rate legitimate versus illegitimate forms of political engagement, respondents overwhelmingly considered political donations as legitimate, with over 80 percent of respondents agreeing.

On the contrary, respondents disapproved of harassment tactics as a legitimate form of political engagement. Only 6 percent of respondents considered threatening a judge as legitimate political engagement. Ten percent supported sharing the home address of a public figure, and 18 percent endorsed protesting at the home of a public official they oppose.

These results demonstrate that only a small fraction of radicals support harassment tactics as a form of political engagement. However, donor disclosure laws empower this small minority by providing them with sensitive personal information about donors who support varying causes. As the survey demonstrates, the vast majority of Americans have no desire to threaten violence against their political opponents; nonetheless, a small minority are willing to resort to violence, and donor privacy is meant to protect the majority from this minority of radicals.

As the presidential election approaches, we can expect more Americans to mobilize in support of their preferred cause or candidate. Citizen engagement in the political process is a core component of the American experiment in self-governance, a right that is protected by the First Amendment. But of course, not all forms of political engagement are equal. Donor disclosure chills political speech and empowers both radical activists and unscrupulous public officials to intimidate individuals for merely engaging in the political process.

While courts have upheld certain disclosure laws that apply to candidates, political parties, and political groups like super PACs, ongoing efforts to force nonprofits to similarly expose their donors when advocating on policy issues would violate Supreme Court precedents and the First Amendment. They also cut against the public’s belief that donations to like-minded causes are a legitimate form of participation in today’s society.

So, while critics of “dark money” propose intrusive disclosure laws that would subject donors to harassment from radical activists, voters overwhelmingly agree that donations are a legitimate form of political engagement while doxing and harassment are not.