Last week, Paul Sherman blogged about how campaign finance laws are often used as weapons by opponents in political campaigns. That shouldn’t surprise us a bit. Businesses often use regulations to gain an upper hand against their competitors. It’s hardly surprising that competitors in the political marketplace do the same thing.
Examples of this sort of thing abound. Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journal recently reported on how opponents of Washington senatorial candidate Dino Rossi have been dogging him for years with lawsuits alleging violations of campaign finance laws. Conveniently, these suits tend to become active right around election time.
Both political parties give as well as they get when it comes to the strategic use of campaign finance laws. But that doesn’t make these abuses acceptable. For one thing, the laws are just as likely to be used against ordinary Americans as professional politicians.
A few years ago, the Institute for Justice defended an initiative campaign in Washington State that was sued for failing to disclose the on-air commentary of two talk radio hosts as “in-kind” contributions. The hosts supported the initiative, which sought to repeal a controversial gas tax, and they had the temerity to say so on the air. A number of local governments who stood to gain millions from the gas tax objected and expressed their disdain by suing the initiative campaign for allegedly violating disclosure laws.
The same thing happened to a group of neighbors outside of Denver in 2006. They opposed an initiative to annex their neighborhood into the adjoining town. For talking to neighbors, sending out post cards, and putting up lawn signs, they were sued for failing to register as an “issue committee” under Colorado law. Not surprisingly, the supporters of annexation were the ones who filed the suit. IJ is also litigating this case, which is currently on appeal before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Campaign finance laws have done next to nothing to take the corruption out of politics. But they’ve done a great deal to put the lawyers and regulators in. That may provide for great political theater on occasion, but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our electoral system, and it’s no way to protect free speech.