10th Circuit Court: Does It Matter Who Pays for a Ballot Campaign?

November 2010

To understand yesterday's 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision–which finds campaign-finance rules so arduous that they violate the First Amendment—you have to go back to 2005 and 2006, when a group of Douglas County homeowners were fighting the annexation of their community into the city of Parker. They antied up $1,000 for yard signs and flyers in a concerted, small-scale campaign. The state constitution requires any group of two or more people who spend more than $200 to form an official committee with the Secretary of State and publicly report their finances.

But a group of six neighbors successfully argued in court this week that the state law violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of association, writes The Denver Post. "There is virtually no proper governmental interest in imposing disclosure requirements on ballot-initiative committees that raise and expend so little money,” the court ruled. The main caveat in the finding is that there's a difference between people giving money to an issue and giving to a candidate: A candidate may be corruptible, the court said, but not an issue.

Colorado Ethics Watch is blasting the decision. "Today's ruling invites federal court litigation whenever citizens attempt to exercise their right to know who is spending money to influence ballot issue elections," says Ethics Watch director Luis Toro in a press release. "Today's decision actually increases uncertainty about disclosure laws in ballot issue campaigns."

Meanwhile, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-minded legal group, anticipates the ruling could help overturn similar laws around the nation, reports The Associated Press. The case, which pertains to groups campaigning for or against ballot measures, may well end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year lifted regulations that prevented corporations and unions from running ads for candidates, resulting in the onslaught of advertising we recently experienced during the midterm elections.