Voters in 4 States Limit Money's Role in U.S. Politics

They took steps to repeal the Citizens United ruling, limit campaign contribution limits and create publicly financed elections.
by | November 9, 2016
Demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court, as the justices heard arguments on campaign finance. (AP/Susan Walsh)

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Given the chance to express concern about the influence of money in politics, voters in several states decided to do what they could to limit it.

"It's become an issue of increasing concern," said Brent Ferguson, who works on campaign finance issues at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. "Part of the reason is the increase in spending since Citizens United," he said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision that essentially let corporations, unions and nonprofits make unlimited donations.

Outside groups, such as super PACs, have already spent more than $1 billion this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, compared with $338 million back in 2008 -- the last presidential election year prior to Citizens United.

Ballot measures in California, Missouri, South Dakota and Washington state variously sought the repeal of Citizens United, limits on campaign contributions and the creation of publicly financed campaigns.

All but one of the measures passed.

"This issue is resonating more with voters," said Catie Kelley of the Campaign Legal Center, which favors regulation of money in politics.

While previous election cycles might have seen maybe one measure related to campaign finance restrictions, there were a total of five this year. Both Ferguson and Kelley said voters are frustrated with the lack of lawmakers' action on this issue.

"The common theme we've heard is that 'we'd be happy to do this through the legislative process,'" said Kelley. "There's a real sense of frustration that [ballot measures] are the only way to get these reforms passed."

Currently, 13 states offer some form of public financing for candidates who agree to curtail other fundraising actitivies. Last year, Maine voters approved a ballot measure that increased funding for the state's "clean election" law. But in Maine and other states, public financing and other efforts haven't stemmed the tide of large donations in the most competitive races. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon vs. FEC that while states or Congress can limit how much an individual or group contributes to a single campaign, they cannot limit how much donors give to all campaigns during an election cycle.

In South Dakota, the campaign finance measure was one of several on the state's ballot meant to overhaul the political process. Its passage means voters will be able to direct up to $12 million of state money to the candidates of their choice, in the form of $50 vouchers (sometimes called "democracy credits"). Candidates accepting the vouchers would then have to forego most traditional fundraising.

The measure also imposes new $2,000 limits on contributions that can be made to parties and political action committees in a single election cycle. Currently, South Dakota puts no such limits on contributions. Under the new law, once someone gives more than $500 to a campaign, those donations would have to be disclosed.

In addition, the measure will force more disclosure from independent groups, restrict lobbying by former state officials and create an appointed ethics commission to oversee and enforce these provisions.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, led the opposition to South Dakota's measure. AFP's state director, Ben Lee, believes that it's wrong to use government dollars for campaign purposes. He also said that the disclosure requirements could hamper the privacy of donors.

Don Frankenfeld, Republican co-chair of the measure's campaign committee, said he had grown nervous that money would lead to the measure's defeat. But that proved not to be the case.

Washington state voters, however, rejected a campaign finance measure that is similar to South Dakota's. It would have imposed a cooling-off period before state officials could lobby, while limiting campaign contributions to $100 from lobbyists and government contractors, down from the current $1,000 limit. It would have also let voters devote three $50 vouchers to campaigns.

In contrast to South Dakota, backers of the campaign finance measure in Washington enjoyed more generous funding. Executives from Microsoft, as well as inventor Jonathan Soros -- the son of major liberal donor George Soros -- have written five- and six-figure checks in support.

As in South Dakota, the measure's opponents have complained about money being diverted from other government programs, such as education, to fund political campaigns. Because the vouchers in Washington would be paid for by ending a sales tax credit for Oregonians shopping in the state, tourism and sales could have been hurt in border counties, warned former state Attorney General Rod McKenna.

In Missouri, voters agreed to reimpose limits on campaign contributions, which had been abolished in 2008.

"Missouri is the only state in the union without any limits on campaign donations in state elections," said Marvin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. "If this measure passes, it would bring us much more in line with practices in other states."

Campaign finance has become a perennial issue in the state, with individual donors such as retired financier Rex Sinquefield and building products company owner David Humphreys each funneling millions of dollars to GOP candidates.

The new law will limit donations to candidates for state office to $2,600. It will also limit donations to political parties to $25,000 while blocking some transfers of funds between political committees.

It was backed by Fred Sauer, a former investment firm executive who ran for governor as a Republican in 2012. He's devoted more than $1 million to the campaign. The measure faced no organized opposition.

"Any attempt to put a reasonable lid on campaign spending is sensible," said Ken Warren, a St. Louis University political scientist, "but I am not sure it will survive court challenges."

Meanwhile, voters in California and Washington state each weighed in on the Citizens United ruling.

Washington's measure, which faced no organized opposition, requires members of the state's congressional delegation to introduce a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Similarly, California's measure calls on state officials to work to overturn Citizens United and other judicial decisions that have opened the campaign finance floodgates. But it's just an advisory question, so state officials wouldn't be required to take any action.

Republican legislators mostly oppose the measure, but there was no organized opposition against it. Still, it only narrowly passed.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown allowed the referendum to appear on the ballot without his signature.

"I, too, believe that Citizens United was wrongly decided and grossly underestimated the corrupting influence of unchecked money on our democratic institutions," Brown wrote in response to an earlier version of the proposal in 2014. "But we should not make it a habit to clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures as citizens rightfully assume that their votes are meant to have legal effect."

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