EDITORIAL: Miller, Democrats overreach to expose donors

Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller is no fan of anonymous political speech, never mind the country’s long history of such protected expression. But the collective push from Democrats to root out conservative donors reveals the backers of such speech have good reason to keep their names secret.

Mr. Miller lauded last week’s agreement on the largest-ever fine imposed for a Nevada campaign finance violation, a $40,000 settlement with the Alliance for America’s Future over 2010 advertisements that indirectly supported the gubernatorial candidacy of Brian Sandoval. The secretary of state insists that, under state law, all third-party groups that engage in protected political expression in Nevada must first register with his office and submit reports detailing their contributions — including donor information — and expenses.

However, groups are exempt from such disclosure requirements if they avoid what the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as “express advocacy,” meaning a clear call to vote for or against someone. The Alliance for America’s future very well might have crossed that line in supporting now-Gov. Sandoval, as evidenced by its decision to drop an appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, pay the fine and disclose its donor: the Republican Governor’s Public Policy Committee.

Mr. Miller has pursued similar complaints over what he calls “dark money” and “illegal, anonymous” political speech against Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit advocacy group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, and Citizen Outreach, a Nevada conservative group. And Mr. Miller has vowed to pursue such action against the State Government Leadership Foundation, which recently launched an attack campaign against him over his acceptance of tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts. The foundation’s ads do not mention Mr. Miller’s forthcoming race for attorney general or his GOP opponent, Adam Laxalt — therefore, there’s no express advocacy — but Mr. Miller wants to know the group’s donors anyway.

Mr. Miller says his complaints are grounded in a desire for transparency, but that’s only partly true. This is part of a larger Democratic Party campaign to protect incumbents by intimidating conservative groups that lawfully engage in anonymous political speech, with the ultimate goal of suppressing such expression by scaring off donors. It goes all the way up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who uses the Senate floor to attack the Kochs at every opportunity.

What else might await exposed GOP donors? We know the IRS started targeting nonprofit conservative advocacy groups shortly after President Barack Obama and elected Democrats began relentless public criticism of the tea party movement. And we know that multiple donors to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and public opponents of Obamacare were audited by the IRS in the aftermath of the 2012 election. Wealthy conservatives who donate to political causes have every reason to fear an IRS shakedown as retribution.

Candidates must identify those who donate directly to them, as must groups that engage in express advocacy. But Mr. Miller is overreaching. Free speech doesn’t require registration with the state. The Nevada Supreme Court must step in and remind him of what the law — and the First Amendment — really says.