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The Problem With California's Political Lobbying Laws

Research shows voters trust political messages that appear to come from relatively unknown groups, a tactic at least one powerful interest group has used to its advantage.
The California State Capitol in Sacramento, California. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

The California State Capitol in Sacramento, California. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Experts agree that California's laws make it easy for corporations and labor groups to hide the fact that they funded certain political advertisements. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is so worried it's now proposing "sweeping new requirements" for those who lobby in Sacramento, the Associated Press reports.

That's a good thing. Over the past few years, several studies have found that political messages are more effective when they appear to come from unknown organizations rather than public figures. That means interest groups in California have been running campaigns that are less than transparent about their provenance in the interest of maximizing effectiveness. The AP reports on an example of a flyer that the Western States Petroleum Association mailed to voters opposing a proposal that would have cut California's gas consumption in half by 2030. The flyer said it came from the "California Drivers Alliance" and made no mention of its true sponsor. The proposal failed.

The studies show that, despite a reputation for political lethargy, American voters actually do pay attention to campaign-finance disclosures. That's important to note, because everyday citizens have few other ways of counterbalancing the influence of rich donors on American politics. (For the research on just how strong that influence is, check out this past Pacific Standard story.) "Regulating how much groups spend, how much they raise, or the sources of their donations, are nonstarters, as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that such regulations are unconstitutional," one team of researchers wrote recently. "One accountability provision that has, by and large, withstood court scrutiny is disclosure of donors."

On the one hand, this is all pretty obvious. Of course voters will trust an ad from a grassroots-sounding group more than one from a powerful industry representative. On the other hand, it's good to have research to support these seemingly "common sense" notions. Not everything works the way you would expect, but in this case, the intuitive idea holds up, offering a potent reason for reform.