Stalled at the Federal Level, Democracy Advocates Look to the States

(Photo: Every Voice)

Demonstrators listen to speakers at the Democracy Awakening rally outside the United States capitol this past summer. 

Democracy advocates who had hoped to reverse Citizens United under a President Clinton now face the prospect that a GOP-controlled Congress and White House will instead move in the opposite direction, and blow the campaign-finance rules even further out of the water.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Capitol Hill’s consummate booster of campaign-finance deregulation, is already plotting how to dramatically loosen contribution limits to political parties and candidates, and block disclosure for dark-money groups. Instead of overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court will likely tilt further to the right under Donald Trump, and is primed to take up a case that could bring back the soft-money era, when corporations and unions poured unlimited contributions into campaign coffers.

But even as their hopes of playing offense at the federal level are dashed, campaign-finance advocates are celebrating a series of wins at the state and local level, where their attention will increasingly turn. Across the country on Election Day, voters in cities and states approved several campaign-finance and ethics ballot measures designed to fight big money and special-interest influence while empowering small donors.

South Dakota voters approved a comprehensive reform package that will give voters a $100 voucher to contribute to candidates, improve disclosure for political spending, and crack down on lobbyist influence. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers, had spent heavily against the measure. San Francisco voters also overwhelmingly approved a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials. The measure also barred lobbyists from contributing to or bundling money for candidates whom they had registered to lobby.

“These are incredibly important victories, not just for the people where these reforms passed, but for everyone across the United States,” said Josh Silver, executive director of the national reform group Represent.Us, which backed several of the successful reform initiatives, in a statement. “The victories prove that when right and left unite, we have clear path forward to fix our corrupt political system.”

Voters in Washington state did narrowly defeat a reform measure similar to South Dakota’s. Meanwhile, voters in Berkeley, California, passed a measure that offers public matching funds for low-dollar contributions of $50 or less, delivering $6 in public money for every $1 raised. In Howard County, Maryland, voters also passed a small donor campaign-finance measure, following in the footsteps of neighboring Montgomery County. In another landmark victory for reformers, Missouri voters fed up with years of unfettered spending by mega-donors reinstated state contribution limits of $2,600. Voters in one Oregon county also approved contribution limits via ballot initiative.

“What we see in these ballot questions voters will vote for as much reform as we can put in front of them,” says David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, which has helped usher through a handful of state public financing measures in recent years. The group did not succeed across the board, failing to get public funding on the ballot in places like Miami-Dade County and Arizona.

But reform advocates say the recent wave of successful campaign-finance initiatives is a reassuring sign for a democracy movement that has, in recent years, shifted resources to a bottom-up strategy—blocked at the federal level but passing measures in cities and states, which have long been more open to experimentation.

This year’s ballot wins build on existing reforms already in place in such states as Maine and Arizona, which provide public grants to candidates who reach a certain threshold of support from small donors. New York City and Los Angeles have had public-financing systems that match (and amplify) small-donor contributions in place for decades. Over the years, New York City has strengthened its program, and now matches small donor contributions to city council and mayoral candidates at a rate of six to one. Research has shown that the system has succeeded in dramatically increasing participation among small donors from poorer and more diverse neighborhoods.

Such public-grant systems require high participation levels to succeed, and many candidates in Arizona and Maine have in recent years rejected public money in favor of private funding, to better compete in costly races. Maine voters approved a measure last year that address that problem, making it easier for publicly-funded candidates to compete. The public-matching system in New York City seems to be working best, says Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. “Super-match systems are much more effective at drawing in new donors,” he says.

Other reforms, such as offering vouchers, remain untested. Last year, Seattle passed a first-of-its-kind voucher system that gives voters public funds to contribute to candidates as they see fit. Both the South Dakota and Washington state measures were modeled off Seattle’s system, which is set to take effect for some city races in 2017. Reformers are optimistic that it will have the same impact as public matching.

In recent years, state and local reform laws have set out to enhance disclosure for dark-money groups—501(c)(4)s that engage in political activity but are not required to disclose their donors. Both California and Montana have passed strong transparency laws. California’s law, however, took a blow when a judge ruled that Americans for Prosperity didn’t have to disclose its donors. The city of Austin, Texas, also recently passed a transparency law, modeled on the Democrats’ stalled federal DISCLOSE Act, that Ryan says is the “standard bearer for dark-money disclosure.”

Even if conservatives regain a majority on the Supreme Court, most state and local reforms are expected to hold up. That’s because public funding systems and robust disclosure are the two campaign-finance areas that the Roberts Court has steadfastly supported. Experts do not anticipate legal attacks on these local laws to succeed in court, though they do worry that laws imposing contribution limits are more vulnerable.

Building on this year’s success, reformers are already eyeing where they think legislatures and city councils could support new public financing and anti-corruption laws, and other jurisdictions where ballot measures may be viable.

“There was and there still is an opportunity to pursue and study the effects of new approaches in variety of jurisdictions,” says the Campaign Finance Institute’s Michael Malbin, a leading expert on public financing models. “This is a good time to do so.”

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