[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople who fight against laws requiring transparency of spending on elections love to talk about Revolutionary War author Thomas Paine. Read a few conservative websites railing against disclosure of political money, and you might come away thinking there is no difference between Tom Paine’s anonymous pamphlets urging revolution against the British and television attack ads secretly funded by large corporations. They even convinced one federal judge to rule that a publication urging a No vote on the 2014 Personhood Amendment was “today’s Tom Paine pamphlet” in a ruling against Colorado’s law requiring transparency in election spending.
Let’s be real, though. Tom Paine wasn’t anonymous because he wanted to keep voters from knowing who was funding his message. He was anonymous because he was advocating armed revolution. That is as illegal today as it was at the time of the Revolution.
The foes of disclosure who invoke Paine seem to forget what he was fighting for. The First Amendment, was never intended to help keep citizens in the dark. It was intended to foster a full, robust debate based on facts so that an informed people can govern themselves. Even the conservative Supreme Court in the otherwise infamous Citizens United case managed to agree 8-1 that people spending money to talk about candidates around the time of an election can be required to disclose their spending and where the money came from.
In his April 17, 1777 pamphlet, Tom Paine himself criticized secret sympathizers with the British and wrote in favor of publicly identifying them: “In the present crisis we ought to know, square by square and house by house, who are in real allegiance with the United Independent States, and who are not. Let but the line be made clear and distinct, and all men will then know what they are to trust to.”
That doesn’t sound like a friend of dark-money operatives to me.