Oregonians vote to end their era of free-flowing money in politics
Tuesday's election yielded two wins and one probable loss for those who say that curbing the influence of money in politics is key to a better democracy.
By far the most significant victory for that cause was in Oregon, which voted overwhelmingly to allow the state to limit campaign contributions and spending — and reverse some of the nation's most permissive campaign financing rules. And a couple of symbolic new limits were approved Tuesday in Missouri. But a package including new curbs on gifts to campaigns was facing rejection in Alaska.
The Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling a decade ago said corporations, nonprofits and unions have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want to help elect or defeat candidates for Congress or president. But since then, more than a handful of states have moved to tighten the flow of cash coursing through their own campaigns for statewide, legislative and local offices.
Here are the details on the three measures on the ballot this week:
There was no organized opposition to the ballot referendum, which secured 79 percent support — ending decades of stalemate on the issue.
The measure adds language to the state Constitution making plain that restrictions on contributions and spending are permitted at all levels of government — as are rules requiring campaigns to be transparent about who is funding them.
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Its approval will make campaign finance legislation a high-profile topic in the Legislature next year. Proponents of the ballot measure say that, if strict new rules to curb big money and favor small-dollar donations are not produced fast, they will try to force Salem's hand with another referendum two years from now.
Oregon is one of just five states that sets no limits on how much money candidates can receive from donors, the result of a state Supreme Court decision in 1997 that political contributions are a form of free speech under the state Constitution. A proposal to change that was rejected by voters in 2006, but the campaign was revived two years ago after a not very competitive race for governor was fueled with more than $40 million in gifts.
The arguments over the measure were familiar. Advocates talked about the overdue need to combat potential corruption and reduce the power of the wealthy and special interests. The grassroots opponents said the result would stifle political debate.
Two marginal curbs to political money in Jefferson City were appended to a ballot measure that was mainly focused on changing the rules for redistricting — by reversing the voters' 2018 demand that the lines be drawn to ensure partisan fairness. It was approved with just 51 percent of the vote.
The measure will ban even the token gifts from lobbyists that are now permitted — just $5 to buy legislators a soda or maybe a ticket to a pancake breakfast. It will also lower the limit on donations to candidates for the 34 state Senate seats — but by just $100, to $2,400. And the new curb does not touch the contribution ceiling for the 163 state House races.
The outcome of the broadest democracy reform initiative on the ballot this year remained grim if uncertain Thursday, and will stay that way until next week. With votes cast in person early and on Election Day tallied — almost three-fifths the expected total -- the proposal was being rejected by 65 percent of Alaskans. The 55,000 vote gap could shift and potentially be reversed, however, when 152,000 mailed ballots are opened and counted starting Tuesday.
In addition to open primaries and ranked-choice voting, the initiative would also require advocacy groups that make contributions for or against candidates for state offices to disclose their donors. These types of "dark money" groups currently don't have to reveal their funding sources. And it would require disclaimers on campaign advertising by organizations funded by mostly out-of-state money.
Strengthening these disclosure requirements, proponents say, will help bolster transparency around the groups or individuals influencing Alaska's elections.
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