The Los Angeles Times reports on spending by independent groups in three California elections, raising alarm that “insurance companies, lawyers and other interests were calling most of the shots in the three campaigns.” These concerns were echoed by Dan Schnur, chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), who reacted to this independent speech by claiming that it “makes a mockery of the rules designed to create a level playing field.”
These sorts of overwrought claims are distressingly common in reporting on campaign finance, and this isn’t the first time the FPPC has been critical of the role of independent speech in elections (see, for example, their 2008 report on the phenomenon, the cover of which features the California capital building being menaced by a giant gorilla hurling $100 bills). But these claims also fundamentally misunderstand the role that independent speech plays in elections.
Contrary to the view of many proponents of campaign finance regulation, voters are not automatons—interest groups cannot simply pour opinions into their heads. Voters must be persuaded, and the groups profiled in the Los Angeles Times article are simply attempting, through independent political advocacy, to persuade voters to take action at the ballot box. Those efforts may succeed or fail and, as the FPPC’s 2008 report shows, such efforts often do fail. But as the Supreme Court recognized in Citizens United v. FEC (.pdf), “[t]he fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials.” In other words, it’s the voters who call the shots.
The plaintiffs in Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, et al. v. Swanson, et al., 10-cv-2938, which we discussed here last week, have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. The motion is scheduled to be heard before the district court on August 20, 2010, although the plaintiffs have asked for expedited consideration.
The motion argues, among other things, that after Citizens United “The only constitutionally cognizable interest in limiting contributions is the interest in preventing quid-pro-quo corruption.” This interest, under the seminal case Buckley v. Valeo (1976), is only implicated with “large” contributions, so contributions with a per-donor cap, such as the $2,300 cap in the last federal election cycle, satisfy that interest, even when a corporation is giving the money to a party or candidate. Thus, according to the motion, corporations should be able to give money directly to parties and candidates, something currently illegal under Minnesota, and federal, law.
We’ll keep a close eye on this case for our readers.
Click here to go to his new column on these topics. He begins:
Two splendid recent developments have highlighted how campaign finance "reforms" have become the disease they pretend to cure. In Arizona and in Congress, measures ostensibly aimed at eliminating corruption or the "appearance" thereof illustrate the corruption inherent in incumbents writing laws that regulate political competition by rationing political speech.
That’s exactly right: The idea that incumbents write “campaign finance” laws with no eye toward protecting their reelection prospects is—as we have previously noted—absurd.
For more of our recent commentary on the DISCLOSE Act, click here, here, and here.
IJ is challenging the matching funds provision of Arizona’s “Clean Elections” system. For some of our recent commentary on that system, click here and here.
In a new case that builds off of IJ’s challenge to Arizona’s so-called “clean elections” system, Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott is challenging that state’s similar system of taxpayer-financed campaigns. Both states' laws discourage nonparticipating candidates from robustly exercising their First Amendment rights, because once a nonparticipating candidate spends more than a certain amount to speak out to the electorate, the government starts writing checks directly to his opponent. As political scientist David Primo documented (.pdf) in the Arizona case, the constant risk of triggering these matching funds creates incentives to delay or withhold spending on political speech, skewing the political debate.
In addition to Mr. Scott’s lawsuit, Floridians will have the opportunity to vote in November for a constitutional amendment that would repeal Florida’s system of taxpayer-financed elections. And if the Supreme Court accepts review of IJ’s challenge to Arizona’s law—as it has hinted it might—it could invalidate these schemes nationwide. One way or another, it looks like the days of taxpayer funds being used to squelch political speech in Florida are numbered.
Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh has a couple of interesting observations on the Washington Post's report that unions are outspending corporations on campaign ads.
There’s a new campaign finance lawsuit challenging the State of Minnesota’s various restrictions on corporations engaging in political speech. The case, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, et al. v. Swanson, et al., 10-cv-2938, was filed yesterday in the U.S. District of Minnesota. Judge Donovan Frank is the judge.
According to the complaint (not publically available online yet), the plaintiffs argue that Minnesota’s new law, although recently amended in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, nevertheless violates the First Amendment. This is because, among other things, it requires corporations to spend their money advocating the election or defeat of a candidate through a political fund and not directly from their treasuries. This argument relies upon the Court’s statements in Citizens United that forming separate entities, such as political action committees (“PACs”) “are burdensome alternatives; they are expensive to administer and subject to extensive regulations.” It’s similar to the argument IJ made, in the non-corporate context, in SpeechNow.org v. FEC.
Interestingly, the complaint also challenges Minnesota’s ban on corporations directly contributing money to candidates.
Jim Bopp of the James Madison Center is an attorney on the case, as is the Minnesota firm of Mohrman & Kaardal.
When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, many said that it would lead to corporations using their vast treasuries to overwhelm their competition. The New York Times, for instance, said that the opinion “opened the floodgates for big business and special-interest dollars to overwhelm American politics.”
The evidence from several months later, though, shows that these dire predictions have not quite panned out. The Washington Post and Mother Jones have both reported about a number of new organizations that have begun to speak in the wake of Citizens United. Rather than General Electric and Microsoft doing the talking, though, it’s been the AFL-CIO, the SEIU and the AFSCME. All three unions have run radio and television ads in recent primaries that explicitly called for the election or defeat of candidates.
This kind of “express advocacy” was illegal until the Supreme Court held in Citizens United that the First Amendment prohibits laws, passed by Congress, that prevent groups of citizens from speaking out during elections. Hopefully other groups - including corporations - will soon join these unions and make their voices heard. After all, the Supreme Court in Citizens United said that “it is our law and our tradition that more speech, not less, is the governing rule.” Perhaps if groups continue to speak out and the republic does not end as some have predicted, we will one day come to view the campaign finance laws in much the same way we now view the alien and sedition acts.
Image Source: Beige Alert
“We want the DISCLOSE Act” is a website at which people can be "citizen co-sponsors" of the Act by signing an online petition. The site contains a list of these "co-sponsors," but it provides an option, taken advantage of by several signers, to remain anonymous. Might this option exist because the folks behind the petition effort—Senators Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold, and Patrick Leahy—know that more people will sign if they don’t have to reveal their personal information to the public?
Of course it does. Something to keep in mind the next time an advocate of mandatory disclosure laws—including the DISCLOSE Act, which Senator Schumer has admitted is intended to deter corporations from speaking—tells you they don’t chill speech.