Corsi’s Life of Political Crime

If you want to get together with friends to talk about politics, hear speakers on policy issues, and perhaps create a website promoting policy ideas, do you need to register as a political actin committee even if you don’t endorse candidates or get involved in elections?  In Ohio the answer can be “yes,” as Ed Corsi discovered after he set up the “Geauga Constitutional Council.”  Although Corsi only spent several hundred per year on the Council, the Ohio Elections Commission concluded it was required to register and report on its activities, and this conclusion was upheld in Ohio courts.  Now Corsi is seeking Supreme Court review, aided by the Center for Competitive Politics.

In yesterday’s WSJ CCP Chairman and former Federal Election Commission Chair Bradley Smith wrote about the potential significance of the case:

It is inconceivable, however, that America’s founders thought the First Amendment would allow the government to routinely require citizens to report their political activity, and be subjected to  . . . complex regulations. They wanted to prevent government from doing precisely this sort of thing. Yet Mr. Corsi lost in state court. Now he waits to see if the Supreme Court will agree to hear his case.

The “big money” in politics can afford the accountants, consultants and lawyers needed to cope with campaign- finance law. The burdens frequently fall more heavily on grass-roots politics—the very thing we ought to be encouraging. There also is abundant anecdotal evidence that the main result, if not the purpose, of campaign-finance laws is to allow political insiders and government officials to harass grass-roots activists. . . .

In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), and again in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life (1986), the Supreme Court held that the regulatory requirements of operating a political action committee could not be imposed on groups that lacked the primary purpose of supporting or defeating political candidates in elections. But across the country, states are flouting that command, imposing rigid requirements on ordinary citizens who are trying to express their political opinions. . . .

Most state statutes now simply ignore the Supreme Court and require that two or more citizens who spend even nominal amounts on politics to register and report to the government. Even printing yard signs or running an email list can trigger these requirements. In Ohio, a single dollar in expenditures will do, so be careful if you talk politics over a cup of coffee.

Former White House Counsel Bob Bauer also believes Corsi is a potentially important case.