In Trump’s America, Common Cause Cares about the First Amendment

Common Cause, a group that actively pushes for broader campaign finance disclosure laws, recently sued President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission in federal court in an attempt to block the Commission’s efforts to obtain voter data from the states.

The legal complaint notes that the Commission issued “a sweeping request for [Americans’] voting and other personal data, including information regarding the quintessentially First Amendment protected activities of voting history and party affiliation.”

In a statement to The Washington Post, Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said, “The commission cannot be trusted, it has already shifted its explanation on where, and how, this First Amendment protected data will be stored.”

Based on these statements, it would appear that Common Cause understands and is genuinely concerned about the threat to First Amendment rights that exists when the government begins demanding the personal information of citizens engaging in First Amendment protected activity.

If so, this is a welcome change. But what a change it would be.

In states across the country, as well as at the federal level, Common Cause endlessly pushes for legislation that would allow the government to collect nonprofit group members’ “personal data, including information regarding the quintessentially First Amendment protected activities” of association and political speech.

In the case of the disclosure laws that Common Cause desires, there is not a question of “where, and how, this First Amendment protected data will be stored.” It will be stored in a government database and made publicly available on the internet, forever.

It is often the case that groups become more concerned with threats to privacy, association, and speech when they are opposed to those currently in power. While Common Cause is a “nonpartisan” group, it is a fair assessment to say that much of their advocacy work is in opposition to the current powerholders in Washington.

So, the organization’s newfound regard for the personal privacy of citizens exercising their First Amendment rights is perfectly understandable. Governmental threats to freedom of association and speech do, in fact, sometimes become more real for groups and individuals that are working directly against the agenda of the ruling administration or party. But respect for Americans’ First Amendment rights should not depend upon one’s feelings toward those currently in power. The Bill of Rights exists so that when power and policy direction shift, Americans’ liberties (should) remain stable.

Common Cause’s motion was ultimately denied, but protecting the privacy of voters is indeed important. Any civil liberties advocate should be skeptical of a list of citizens’ political affiliations or views in the hands of those with political power. The chilling effect on First Amendment protected activity only increases when such a list is made publicly available, as the citizens on the list are then exposed to the specter of harassment and intimidation from private actors.

Hopefully, Common Cause recognizes that the First Amendment concerns expressed in this case also apply to the overbroad, burdensome, and invasive disclosure laws they desire.