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Most Ethics and Campaign Finance Measures Win Voters' Approval

All but one passed.

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Voters approved most but not all of the ballot measures meant to address ethics and campaign finance issues.

New Mexico and North Dakota will have independent ethics commissions for the first time, but South Dakota will not.

"We're hoping this will restore people's faith that when laws are broken, consequences follow," says Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause in New Mexico, where a measure to create an ethics commission received about 75 percent of the vote. 

There was no organized opposition to the New Mexico measure, which the legislature approved last year. Lawmakers have already been sitting on task forces to begin drafting legislation to implement the new constitutional amendment.

The issue was much more contentious in South Dakota, though, where voters rejected a sweeping ethics measure. Two years ago, voters narrowly approved a package that included the creation of an ethics commission, as well as imposing new restrictions on campaign contributions and lobbying. But the legislature promptly overturned the measure.

This year's ballot contained a do-over. Amendment W would have created a seven-member ethics board, while also banning state and local officials from lobbying while in office and for two years after leaving office. It would have banned gifts from lobbyists to governmental officials, except for relatives, while capping contributions to candidates. The proposed limits for donations from any source ranged from $500 for state House and local candidates to $4,000 for candidates for governor.

The amendment was long -- 3,300 words -- and complicated. Its opponents, including business groups, argued that it was too vague and sought to hand too much power to the proposed ethics board. They also complain it was being funded by an out-of-state group known as Represent.Us. (South Dakota voters approved a separate initiative to ban contributions from out-of-state sources for ballot measure campaigns.)

Supporters of the measure described it as a necessary corrective to the status quo. "[Insiders] like the game that they're playing now, and they don't want the rules changed," Mitch Richter, a former GOP legislator and sponsor of the measure, said this summer.

The arguments in North Dakota ran along similar lines. A measure there to create a five-member ethics commission, while also banning gifts from lobbyists, was approved by about 75 percent of voters. Additionally, it bans political contributions from foreign entities and individuals, while requiring easily accessible disclosures of contributions exceeding $200. 

"Having a location for reporting abuses will go a long way in protecting the integrity of the [government] workforce," Lloyd Omdahl, a Democratic former lieutenant governor and political scientist, wrote in an opinion column. "Needless to say, lobbyists are getting more adept at concealing their methods of influence."

Opponents of the measure complained that it was too vaguely worded, leaving its budgetary impact unclear but enshrining vague and ill-defined powers for the ethics commission in the state constitution. Groups including the ACLU's North Dakota chapter also warned that requiring individuals and groups to disclose anytime they spend more than $200 to influence the legislature could have a chilling effect on speech, since even people coming to the Capitol to testify might spend more than that on travel costs. 

The measure's supporters dismissed that argument, saying that it's clear the money would have to be spent directly on influence -- not just eating near the Capitol, but taking a legislator out to dinner, for example.

In Florida, the state's constitutional revision commission referred a proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot that bars public officials from being paid to lobby while in office and prevent them from lobbying for six years after leaving office. Currently, officials in Florida have to wait out a two-year window. The measure passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote. 

"Amendment 12 says you can be a paid lobbyist or you can be an elected official, but you can't be both at the same time," says Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president who sat on the commission and sponsored the measure.

The amendment's critics contended that six years is too long and that qualified people will be discouraged from running for office if they can't count on making a living after they get out. Of course, in states with waiting periods in place, lobbying firms often hire former officials who offer advice and counsel but don't formally lobby.


Creating -- and Curbing -- Oversight Commissions

In Arizona, voters approved a ballot measure 20 years ago creating the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to oversee a public campaign finance system. On Tuesday, the state's voters approved a new referendum, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature along party lines, to curb the authority of that board.

The referendum came in response to a decision from the commission to enact rules requiring "dark money" groups to disclose the source of their funds. That new law required that any rules drafted by the commission meet with approval from the governor's Regulatory Review Council.

Having the commission answer to a council appointed solely by the governor would undermine its independence, Democratic critics of the measure argued.

The voter-approved measure also bars candidates who receive public funds from transferring that money to parties or other political committees. "In 2016, it was discovered that several clean election candidates had contributed over $100,000 to the state Democratic Party," GOP Rep. Mark Finchem wrote in the state's official voter guide. "This was an obvious abuse of the system and opens up the possibility that both state parties could look to place candidates on the ballot for the sole purpose of providing clean election funds to the party."

In Missouri, voters easily approved Amendment 1, which will affect campaign finance, lobbying and redistricting.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce argued that the measure violates the state requirement that ballot measures be limited to a single subject, and a judge agreed. But an appellate court restored Amendment 1 to the ballot in September.

The measure creates a position known as state demographer -- selected by the state auditor and Senate leaders -- who will create maps for redistricting. Those maps can be changed by the commissions that draw the state House and Senate maps, provided the changes are approved by 70 percent of commissioners and follow the same guidelines required of the demographer, including compactness and competitiveness.

Amendment 1 also bans lobbyists from making gifts of more than $5 and blocks public officials from lobbying for two years after the conclusion of the last legislative session during which they served. The measure sets new limits on campaign contributions as well -- $2,000 for state House candidates and $2,500 to state Senate candidates. It creates penalties for donors who use fake names or launder contributions through other individuals or entities.

Additionally, the measure makes sure campaign contribution limits remain in place. It blocks the legislature from ever passing laws to allow unlimited campaign contributions. Currently, the state places no limits on contributions. Missouri abolished limits a decade ago, determining they were toothless. One megadonor, retired financier Rex Sinquefield, was sending candidates funds through more than 100 political action committees.

Supporters said Amendment 1 was needed to address issues with a legislature that takes in nearly $1 million worth of gifts annually from lobbyists and in which lawmakers are shielded from political accountability by gerrymandering. 

Republicans argued that unions and other groups backing the measure were trying to tilt the playing field in the Democrats' favor, noting that the state auditor, who would have a big role in picking the mapmaker, is the only statewide office currently held by a Democrat. (State Auditor Nicole Galloway won reelection on Tuesday.)

The measure was also opposed by some Democrats, notably African-American officeholders who warned that the changes in redistricting could dilute the number of majority-minority districts. 


Other Campaign Finance Measures

The Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in Colorado both supported Amendment 75, which voters approved and which will alter the state's rules regarding campaign contribution limits.

Currently, caps on donations to candidates range from $400 for a district attorney's race to $1,500 for governor. But candidates themselves face no limits on what they can spend on their own campaigns

Aiming to level the playing field, Amendment 75 allows candidates whose opponents spend more than $1 million on their races to receive contributions five times as large as allowed under normal limits. For example, a gubernatorial candidate running against a self-funding millionaire could receive contributions up to $7,500.

Democrat Jared Polis, who has spent upwards of $22 million of his own money on his successful campaign for governor this year, supported the measure, as did his Republican opponent Walker Stapleton. But Colorado Common Cause opposed it, arguing that "the solution to too much money in politics is not more money in politics."

In 2016, voters in California and Washington state passed symbolic resolutions to express disapproval of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2010 that opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations, nonprofit organizations and unions. 

This year, voters in Massachusetts approved a measure to create a commission charged with reporting on ways of limiting money in politics, including proposing language for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United.

For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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