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Secret Donors Behind Election TV Ads May be Outed by Court Decision

By Edward Tan, JD on May 21, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court has declined to stay a lower court ruling requiring groups that finance election ads to reveal their secret donors.

A U.S. Court of Appeals panel voted 2-1 that political advocacy groups failed to provide sufficient evidence to grant the stay, the Los Angeles Times reports. The groups argued contributors needed to have their identities kept secret in order to protect them from retribution due to their political views.

The lawsuit was brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). He sought to overturn a Federal Election Commission regulation that allowed advocacy groups to keep their funders anonymous. So what effect will this latest ruling have on political ads?

Right now, it may mean that any group that airs an election ad will have to reveal their donors going all the way back to 2011.

However, this may change once the case is finally argued in September. Until then, financiers of these "electioneering communications" might not be able to hide.

Conservative groups and legal experts have been especially critical of the lawsuit. They argue that the decision to fight the FEC regulation is politically motivated.

"This is really about incumbent politicians trying to silence voices they don't agree with," election law lawyer Jason Torchinsky said. He believes the recent decision could restrict free speech.

It's estimated that outside groups spent nearly $80 million on electioneering in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While "super PACs" are required to reveal their funders, tax-exempt political advocacy groups do not.

Van Hollen believes the FEC overstepped its authority regarding advocacy group election ads. But for now, we'll have to wait until this fall before we'll know whether these groups' secret donors will be allowed to remain secret.

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