Overturning Contribution Limits a Good Call

June 2006
The U.S. Supreme Court today overturned campaign finance limits in Vermont that were among the most stringent in the nation, and the ruling may set the stage for a similar challenge in Colorado. As the Associated Press reports:
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Vermont's limits on contributions and spending in political campaigns are too low and improperly hinder the ability of candidates to raise money and speak to voters. In a fractured set of opinions, justices said they were not sweeping aside 30 years of election finance precedent but rather finding only that Vermont's law -- the strictest in the nation -- sets limits that unconstitutionally hamstring candidates. The majority took issue with Vermont legislators for "constraining speech" by telling candidates and voters how much campaigning was enough... ...In one of six separate opinions, Justice Stephen Breyer said a majority of justices found Vermont's limitations on contributions and spending was unconstitutional. "That is to say, they impose burdens upon First Amendment interests that (when viewed in light of the statute's legitimate objectives) are disproportionately severe," Breyer wrote. In 1997, Vermont passed its campaign finance law, placing a $300,000 spending cap on gubernatorial candidates and lesser limits for other state political contests. Contributions to state campaigns were limited to as little as $200 per election cycle for state House races.
In 2002, voters approved "Amendment 27" in Colorado that greatly reduced contribution limits in Colorado for candidates running for state office (federal campaign limits were not affected). Colorado doesn't have the ridiculous $300,000 spending cap for gubernatorial candidates that Vermont has (both Bill Ritter and Bob Beauprez had raised more than that by last summer), but candidates for state House races here are limited to the same $200 per cycle contribution limit. The spirit of Amendment 27 was correct - that we should find a way to put campaigns back in the hands of people and not with big donors and special interests - but it didn't really do what supporters hoped it would. In fact, it did just the opposite. Many elected officials in Colorado will tell you that they don't like the current contribution limits because it actually gives them less control of their campaigns than they had before. That might sound strange, but it's true, and here's why: Candidates can no longer raise the money they need to be competitive without the help of big donors and special interests. A candidate for state House can accept a $400 check from an individual ($200 for the primary and $200 for the general election), but with around $50,000 needed to run a competitive race, and that's on the low end, you would need to find 125 people willing to write out a $400 check. That's incredibly difficult to do, especially since most donors give around $25 or $50 at a time. Think about how many people you know who would write you out a $400 check if you asked them. How big is that list? Prior to Amendment 27, a candidate could accept a bigger check from a wealthier donor - say, $1,000 - and that money would help balance out the lower contributions. Smaller monetary limits also gave rise to so-called "education committees" that have taken on more and more of a big money role in recent elections. Because it is so difficult for a candidate to raise big money on their own, they have become reliant on "education committees" to pick up the slack. I discussed these funding loopholes in this space a year ago, almost to the day:
"Education committees" can advocate on issues and candidates without specifically suggesting a vote for either. For example, an education committee could pay for mailings that talk about how great John Hickenlooper is as mayor, but they cannot actually say "vote for John Hickenlooper for re-election." It's a silly exemption, and it doesn't make campaign finance laws any clearer because it's next to impossible to figure out who has donated to an "education committee" (journalists hate this new campaign rule, because at least with the old laws campaign contributions were easier to track). "Education committees" remain political committees, however, in that they cannot accept tax exempt donations.
Both Republicans and Democrats use these committees to spend big money on targeted races, but because a candidate cannot coordinate their efforts directly, individuals often have no idea what kind of electioneering will be done on their behalf. As a result, campaigns often end up being decided by two competing "education committees," rather than by the candidates themselves. Somebody running for a state House seat, for example, may be basing their campaign on a handful of important issues and message points, only to see an "education committee" spend thousands of dollars on direct mail that is in their favor but not necessarily reflective of the campaign they want to present. Think of it like those parents of Girl Scouts who sell boxes and boxes of cookies for their daughters every year; maybe the total amount of cookies sold was enough to make the Girl Scout a top seller, but she didn't really have anything to do with it. Candidates feel the same way, as though the outcome of their race is no longer in their control. And that's exactly what Amendment 27 was supposed to prevent. It would be nice if we had a system where candidates could be on equal financial footing, but until we correct all of the loopholes inherant in any attempt to level the playing field, there's no point in putting artificial limits on individual candidates. The Supreme Court ruling on Vermont's spending and contribution limits may be the beginning of the end for Colorado's limits, and that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.