The Rise and Fall of the National Organization for Marriage

The Mysterious Minnesota Marriage Campaign

February 06, 2012, by Kevin Nix

HRC released a report - complete with damaging emails - today asking this question: Are Anti-Gay Groups Hiding Donors or Running the Least Successful Grassroots Campaign in History (or Both)? What we found is shocking - even given the history of the National Organization for Marriage and its allies:

Campaign finance reports released last week in Minnesota raise significant and growing questions about how opponents of marriage equality are financing ballot initiatives and whether they are deliberately violating public disclosure laws – or experiencing historic fundraising failures that stretch believability. This analysis – based on public data and emails obtained by the Human Rights Campaign – attempts to crack open the routine secrecy of the anti-gay movement in the Minnesota (and around the country).  Anti-gay groups in Minnesota have demonstrated a stunning lack of donor disclosure as required by law. 

A lopsided fundraising picture: 5,000 donors vs. 7 donors

The reporting disparities in connection with the Minnesota anti-marriage constitutional amendment could not have been more striking. Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition of LGBT and civil rights groups, filed a nearly 350-page report disclosing contributions from 740 individuals across Minnesota and the country (and more than 4,100 individuals not required to be itemized). Lengthy reports like this are standard in hotly-contest ballot initiatives that galvanize the public interest. By contrast, Minnesota for Marriage, representing the National Organization for Marriage and two other anti-LGBT groups, submitted to the state two handwritten pages revealing just seven individual donors over seven months.

With both sides raising about $1.2 million each in 2011, what explains the massive difference between the number of individual donors who have given to each side of the debate?

Clearly, the disparities suggest a significant lack of grassroots support for those who want a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. The gulf also exposes the concerted national strategy pursued by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and its allies to flagrantly violate long-standing campaign finance laws and challenge public disclosure across the country – all with the goal of keeping significant funders of anti-gay causes out of public view.

In Minnesota, NOM and its allies have for months publicly fought the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board’s legal requirements relating to the disclosure of individual donors. In the end, they seem to have decided to test a new, more radical tactic never before tried with a state ballot measure: essentially avoid disclosing almost any individual donors.

Where Are the Anti-Gay Donors?

Campaign finance reports, covering the time period from when the ballot measure was approved by the legislature (May 2011) through the end of the year, reveal fascinating information about each campaign’s funding, but missing from Minnesota for Marriage’s reports are the individual donor information that constitutes the bulk of almost any campaign filing:

Minnesotans United for All Families (pro-LGBT groups)

  • More than $1.2 million raised total;
  • 740 individual donors disclosed;
  • $183,000 in un-itemized contributions (less than $100 donors) representing 4,100 small donors;
  • $185,000 from the Human Rights Campaign, which itself disclosed individual donors it solicited for the ballot measure.

Minnesota for Marriage (anti-LGBT groups)

  • More than $1.2 million raised total;
  • Seven individual donors disclosed accounting for $2,119 (or less than .02% of receipts) with an additional $1,986.50 in un-itemized contributions;
  • $750,000 from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which stated that $700,000 of the funds came from “business revenue” instead of individual donors and $50,000 from The Estate of Rev. James Scheuer;
  • $250,000 from the National Organization for Marriage, which stated that funds came from non-disclosable contributions;
  • $226,000 from the Minnesota Family Council, which stated that funds came from either “business revenue” or non-disclosable contributions.

Minnesota for Marriage disclosed seven individual donors who contributed between $100 and $500 each and one $50,000 donor who is no longer alive. All other individual donors were shielded by the three entities listed above.

Are the Anti-Gay Groups Violating Minnesota Law?

Anti-gay groups are either breaking Minnesota law or they have run one of the least successful general fundraising campaigns in history. For eight months, Minnesota for Marriage has regularly solicited contributions for the ballot measure through its website as well as multiple e-mails that have been obtained by the Human Rights Campaign, with barely $4,000 in total contributions to show for it.

Minnesota, like every other state, legally requires contributors to ballot measure campaigns to be publicly disclosed. Campaign disclosure laws are widely-supported and essential to the democratic process because they tell the public who is helping to fund campaign TV ads, mail and staff. Disclosure ensures accountability and the transparency of elections.

The Minnesota requirements are straightforward: money given in response to solicitations that include a request to support a ballot measure campaign (for example, “Give us money so we can help win the constitutional amendment”) must be disclosed. If the donor contributes more than $100 to the effort, the name and address of the donor along with his or her employer must be listed on the next campaign finance filing. NOM and its allies are well aware of these requirements because they recently asked the Campaign Finance & Disclosure Board a series of written questions on donor disclosure, to which the Board responded last month with 11 pages of specific guidance.

Minnesota for Marriage stated on its report, under penalty of perjury, that seven months of fundraising produced contributions from seven individual donors who gave a total of $2,119 and an unknown number of donors who contributed a total of $1,986.50. Thus, Minnesota for Marriage represented that it raised $4,100 from individual donors in 8 months (that’s less than $20 a day) through its campaign website, e-mails and other fundraising activities. If that seems unbelievable, that’s because it is. Even with anti-LGBT animus waning in national polls, it’s hard to believe that a campaign that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2011 for well-heeled consultants could have been so incredibly inept at fundraising.  

NOM, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and MFC also have some answering to do. They have represented, under penalty of perjury, that they did not solicit any contributions for the ballot measure and that they are not required to otherwise provide underlying disclosure as required by Minnesota law. If these filings are inaccurate, they could be subject to civil and criminal penalties.

More Questions than Answers

The reports filed by Minnesota for Marriage and anti-gay groups ultimately raise more questions than answers. Where are the donors? Did Minnesota for Marriage, NOM and others willfully violate Minnesota law by hiding donors even after requesting and receiving explicit guidance for the Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board? Did the anti-gay groups, as the Board has previously stated, have “a serious misunderstanding of the statutes requiring disclosure and of the Board’s guidance related to application of those statutes,” or did they understand fully what they were told and decide to break the law anyway to protect their donors’ identities?

A National Story of Secrecy and Campaign Finance Evasion

The anti-LGBT groups’ failure to disclose donors contributing to the amendment campaign makes more sense in the context of their nationwide effort to dismantle and evade campaign finance disclosure across the country. NOM remains under investigation by the Maine Attorney General for failing to register and report as a ballot question committee in 2009. Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld Maine’s campaign finance disclosure laws against attack by NOM.

NOM and its allies have steadfastly fought campaign finance disclosure across the country, from California to Washington and Maine to New York, and suffered significant legal defeats at every juncture. In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the disclosure of petition signers for an anti-LGBT referendum in Washington. Federal courts in Washington and California have found NOM’s claims of intimidation and harassment – which they use to justify donor anonymity – to be completely unfounded and unsupported by evidence.

HRC has previously created a summary of NOM’s ethical improprieties and campaign finance disclosure evasion across the country.  

This pattern of evasion suggests that the stunning and unprecedented lack of disclosure by anti-gay groups in Minnesota was no accident. If so, Minnesota for Marriage’s legal troubles have likely just begun. And other states with potential 2012 marriage initiatives – Washington, North Carolina, Maine and Maryland – should take note.