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The Journal Gazette

Friday, August 23, 2019 1:00 am

Editorial

Maximum disclosure

Donor addresses provide essential information

State Rep. Jeff Ellington doesn't want you to know who's supporting Indiana politicians. The Bloomington Republican told the Herald-Times he is considering legislation that would remove street addresses from the campaign finance reports.

There's no reason for federal and state governments to collect the information except to make it easier to harass and target donors, he told the Bloomington newspaper. Names, donation amounts, occupations and city or county of residence would continue to be required. 

Ellington is wrong. There are many good reasons to collect street addresses of donors. 

• A complete address is needed to fully identify who is backing a candidate. A contributor's occupation is required only if the contribution exceeds $1,000, according to the Indiana Election Division.  Ellington's own donors include Bloomington resident Eric Smith, for example. But a quick internet search for Eric Smith in Bloomington finds a postdoctoral researcher, a urologist and the controller at Oliver Winery. A street address is needed to determine which one gave to Ellington's campaign.

• A street address can determine whether a candidate's donors live within his or her district. In Ellington's case, a donor identified as a Bloomington resident might live in Rep. Matt Pierce's district. Voters should know where a candidate's campaign support comes from. Do his own neighbors support him?

• A street address can reveal information not otherwise available. A website search for Education Innovation Research LLC, for example, gives no clue to where that Ellington donor is located. But the street address shows the corporation, which gave $36,000 to Republican legislative candidates last year, was an Indianapolis office park neighbor to the offices of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. Those are the online charter schools that allegedly charged Indiana taxpayers $40 million for students who were not enrolled or earned no credits. 

Indiana is one of just 11 states that impose no contribution limit on individual donors. It's not unreasonable to demand that candidates give more information about their contributors in exchange for that allowance. Hoosiers should know who is donating to political campaigns, as contributions can represent both a sign of support and an effort to influence candidates.

The impetus for Ellington's bad idea is obvious. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, recently posted the names and employers of San Antonio donors who contributed the maximum amount allowed under federal law to President Donald Trump's campaign. 

“It's highly disturbing that a congressman and brother of a presidential candidate would harass citizens and donors using a federal database, especially in the aftermath of two mass shootings, both by men on the extreme fringes,” Ellington told the Herald-Times.

But the congressman violated no law. The information is required under federal election law. If a donor doesn't want to be known as a candidate's supporter, he or she can simply not contribute to a campaign.

Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said Ellington's proposal was a “horrible idea based on a knee jerk reaction to a national news story.”

“Campaign contributors under siege because of disclosure is not an issue here,” Vaughn wrote in an email. “Hoosiers need more information about who's contributing to campaigns, not less. Takes us in the wrong direction for no reason. Bad idea, bad public policy.”