One State’s Crusade to Limit Campaign Contributions Could Have Nationwide Repercussions

Should Montana have to prove corruption to limit campaign contributions?
by | November 2017
Montana state capitol (Shutterstock)

Montana has spent more than a hundred years trying to keep a lid on campaign contributions. It is still trying.

Back around the dawn of the 20th century, the Anaconda Copper Co. and a cabal of “copper kings” ruled the roost in the Treasure State. One of their number, William A. Clark, actually bought himself a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1899; that body initially refused to seat him due to qualms about the bribery scheme. Clark’s plot and others led Montana citizens in 1912 to approve a corrupt practices act, barring all corporate spending in state elections. That law lasted until 2011, when it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that it interfered with free speech.

But Montana still had in place limits on the size of campaign contributions that could be given to candidates. The limits were imposed by voters in 1994. Five years ago, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell found that those limits too were an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, because they didn’t allow candidates sufficient resources to run their campaigns. His decision was rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case back down for him to reexamine.

Last year, Lovell again found the limits unconstitutional. This time, he decided that limits on campaign contributions were unnecessary except in cases with clear evidence of corruption. “The disturbing thing is the judge was holding us to a standard of proving a candidate had approved a quid pro quo,” says Jaime MacNaughton, an attorney for the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

On Oct. 30, a three-judge panel overturned Lovell's decision, finding that the state had adequately made the case that campaign contributions can be used to sway political action, without having to prove an actual case of quid pro quo corruption. “This lawsuit ... sought to open the floodgates of money in Montana elections by making it easier for out-of-state corporations to buy officeholders,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. “I’m glad the federal courts upheld Montana’s limits on money in elections.

Montana refuses to give up on the idea of limiting money and its influence on politics. Some of this seems to be the long historical memory of an era when state politics was dominated by a single industry. “One would think this would pass over time, yet it seems to have influenced the state forever,” says Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena.

Like any state, Montana has occasional campaign finance scandals that keep the issue alive in the media and in people’s minds. Back in 2010, nine Republican legislative candidates were accused by the Commissioner of Political Practices of violating campaign finance laws. This past August, the state Supreme Court upheld a sizable fine imposed against one of them, former state Rep. Art Wittich. Two days later, one of the others, failed state Senate candidate Pat Wagman, signed a settlement with the state and agreed to a pay a fine. All but one of the nine have been punished in some fashion. In September, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock agreed to pay $3,000 to clear up a case regarding his 2014 campaign’s failure to disclose in a timely manner his use of a state plane for political trips.

The fact that the state has an active office targeting campaign finance violations -- in an era when many states have weakened their election and ethics regulation -- is one reason Montana continues to take the issue seriously. But politicians in the state say that support for restrictions and penalties is part of the culture. “People feel they should know who is giving and that there should be some limits on how much money can influence politics and elections,” says state Rep. Frank Garner, who co-sponsored a 2015 law requiring so-called dark money groups to disclose their spending. “That’s still very much the culture of Montana.”

*This post has been updated to reflect the appellate court's ruling on Oct. 30 in favor of preserving the campaign finance law.