Fred A. Bernstein

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An Online Peek at Your Politics

Do my neighbors need to know which candidates I support?

Published in The New York Times, October 4, 2000

From the windows of my apartment, on a narrow street in Greenwich Village, I can see my neighbors eat dinner, talk on the phone and, sometimes, brush their teeth while watching Leno or Letterman -- or me.

But my privacy never felt as fragile as it did when I logged onto a website run by two former Federal Election Commission employees. A friend who lives down the block sent me e-mail alerting me to this ''treasury of neighborhood gossip."

He wasn't kidding. Entering my ZIP code took me to a list, compiled from election commission records, of every person in the neighborhood who had contributed to a candidate for national office in the last 20 years. There it was: donor, recipient and amount (and, with a few more clicks, the donor's address, phone number and employer).

Scrolling down the list, I saw one familiar name after another. The woman downstairs, the one who admonished me for throwing away perfectly good plastic bags, had given more to her favorite candidates than I thought she made in a year. A man down the hall had given $1,000 to a Senate hopeful I despise.

Then there were the donations of the semi-celebrities. One well-known Abstract Expressionist painter supported Bill Bradley; another artist is giving to Ralph Nader. Neither is likely to face much criticism for that in my neighborhood, judging from the predominance of liberals in the recipient column. But what about the comedian who gave to Rudolph Giuliani's Senate run? He may soon have to defend himself at Murray's Cheese Shop.

I found co-workers on the list, too. (''Are they paying her more than they're paying me?'' I wondered, after seeing a colleague's multiple $1,000 contributions.)

Somehow, I wasn't on the list, although I've given at fund-raisers, filling out the requisite donor-information card each time. Maybe the people who type up these handwritten records were frustrated by my scrawl. If so, it's the first time my bad handwriting did me some good.

Why good? Because I don't want people knowing which candidates I give to. Reading the list was fun, I admit, but also felt creepy. It wasn't like peering into my neighbors' closets; it was more like peering inside the voting booth, the sanctum sanctorum of democratic freedom.

True, a donation isn't a ballot. But the two are so closely related that revealing the former seems tantamount to revealing the latter. For me, giving and voting are parts of the same process. Because I can afford to, I back up my ballot with a small contribution. I see it as a civic responsibility, like jury duty.

Now I don't know if I'll contribute again. Because in doing so, I'll be broadcasting my allegiances to anyone who has a modem. I'm probably not alone in feeling this way, which suggests that these lists could have a chilling effect on individuals' contributions, especially donations to unpopular candidates and parties.

The operators of the site are perfectly within their rights to post all this information. Federal laws do more than permit disclosure of such political donations: they require it. Full disclosure, I realize, makes it easier to enforce the individual donor limit. But surely a less public system -- one, say, under which the parties have access to one another's donor lists -- would serve that purpose.

I also understand that the public's ability to link sources of money with a politician's voting record is crucial to electoral accountability. But influence-peddling kicks in at much larger amounts, not $500. Currently, any donation over $200 is reported. A watchdog focused on such small amounts would be missing the forest for the twigs.

Before the Internet, donor records were publicly available only at Federal Election Commission offices. And who would bother going there to see them? Now, like a lot of other data, including real estate records and court filings, they've gone from public in theory to public in fact.

These days, when I look across the courtyard and see my neighbor sitting in front of his computer, I worry that he could be reading about me. In that case, lowering the blinds won't help.