HELENA — A federal appeals court Monday upheld a key portion of Montana’s landmark 2015 campaign-finance disclosure law, rejecting a challenge by a gun-rights group.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said any group distributing material that merely mentions a candidate within 60 days of an election can be required to register with the state and disclose its spending and, in some cases, its donors.
The National Association for Gun Rights, a group based in Colorado, had challenged the reporting requirements as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
It said it planned to distribute “educational literature” to Montanans during the 2020 election cycle on candidates’ stands on gun issues -- but that if it’s required to disclosure under the Montana law, it would not do so.
It argued the law’s definition of “electioneering communication,” which is subject to reporting requirements, is too broad and should apply only to material that advocates directly for or against a candidate.
But the appeals court said disclosure requirements should not be limited only to regulation of “express advocacy.”
Requiring disclosure on information “related to subtle and indirect communication likely to influence voters’ votes (is) critical to the state’s interest in promoting transparency and discouraging circumvention of its electioneering laws,” the court wrote.
“Most of Montana’s disclosure and related requirements (are) substantially related to important governmental interests connected with informing the electorate,” the decision said.
The Montana law, enacted in 2015, was meant to shine a light on so-called “dark money,” which is campaign-related spending by groups that often don’t disclose their spending or donors.
It says any group spending money on mailers, advertising or other communication that mentions a candidate or a ballot issue within 60 days of the election is subject to reporting laws.
Incidental political committees, which are not organized specifically to support a candidate but may spend on electioneering communications, must report their spending. They also must report their donors, if those contributions are made to support a particular candidate.
The National Association for Gun Owners is organized as a nonprofit educational group, whose stated mission is to defend the right to keep and bear arms and “advance that God-given constitutional right by educating the American people in the public-policy process.”
Under Montana’s law, it likely would be considered an incidental committee, if it distributed material that mentions political candidates within 60 days of the election.
The appeals court did strike down a portion of the Montana law, that required such groups to have a treasurer who is a registered Montana voter. However, the court said that flaw did not warrant invalidation of any other part of the law.
“Montana’s scheme is sufficiently tailored to Montana’s interest in informing its electorate of who competes for the electorate’s attention and preventing the circumvention of Montana’s election laws,” the court said.