While more and more states and localities are moving to ban foreigners from influencing their elections, one Arizona lawmaker wants to take it a step further.
Republican state Rep. Bob Thorpe is not as concerned about people from other countries as he is with people from other states. So last week he proposed legislation banning contributions to legislative and ballot initiative campaigns from anybody outside Arizona.
A similar measure in South Dakota has been struck down as an unconstitutional restriction on speech, while a version in Alaska has been tied up in litigation for years.
Thorpe and other Republicans typically extend their hands-off approaches to governmental regulation to include restrictions on campaign financing. But the Tea Party conservative says he's now more interested in preventing wealthy people from other parts of the country (particularly the liberal coastal elites) from influencing election outcomes that would only affect the people of Arizona.
The Legislature is only narrowly in Republican hands, and prospects for the bill getting through before this year's session concludes at the end of April are unclear. In addition,
Tom Collins, the executive director of the state's nonpartisan campaign finance regulatory agency, says the proposal is probably unconstitutional.
Thorpe conceded that point to the Arizona Daily Star. But he said he's pushing the measure anyway in hope of eventually making the Supreme Court decide the issue.
Last spring a federal judge said the First Amendment would be violated by implementing a ballot measure, approved by South Dakotans with 56 percent support in 2018, calling for a complete ban on out-of-state campaign contributions. The state has not yet filed an appeal.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in November sent back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals a challenge to an array of campaign finance restrictions Alaska imposed in the 1990s, including a cap on how much candidates for governor or the Legislature may receive from outside the state. Back in 1999, however, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled this limitation did not violate the First Amendment.
The bill by Thorpe, who is barred by state term limits from running to represent the Flagstaff area again this November, says any person or corporation from another state "shall not make a contribution to any committee located in this state or any person or candidate for office in this state." The bill does not mention independent expenditures, so presumably super PACs could still spend on advertising to influence Arizona elections.
In explaining his rationale for the measure, he pointed to the $24 million spent in favor of a 2018 ballot measure that would have required the state to boost its renewable energy usage. Much of the money was spent by the political action committee started by billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer. In the end, though, the ballot initiative was rejected, in part thanks to a $40 million campaign by Pinnacle West Capital, headquartered in Phoenix.
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The Supreme Court on Monday reversed a lower-court ruling that found Alaska's campaign contribution limits are not so low as to be unconstitutional.
But the decision was made in such a way, one expert argues, that the court limited its own ability to undo the restraints governing the influence of campaign donations.
In an unsigned opinion, the court vacated the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit brought by an Alaska couple who wanted to contribute more than the annual maximum of $500 per candidate or election-oriented group (other than a political party) allowed under state law. They claimed the limit violated the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruling states the 9th Circuit erred when it decided not to not apply standards the high court set in a 2006 ruling that determined Vermont's campaign finance limits were so low as to be unconstitutional. The court argued that such low limits can "harm the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability."
The Alaska limits, the Supreme Court pointed out on Monday, are even lower than those in Vermont. And they are not indexed, meaning they do not go up to match the rise of inflation.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while agreeing with the court ruling, wrote in a separate statement that even if the 9th Circuit were to apply the Vermont standard to Alaska's contribution limits, that wouldn't necessarily mean it had to conclude they were too low.
That's because, Ginsburg wrote, the Alaska Legislature is the second smallest in the country and the state's economy is dominated by the oil and gas industry. The low limits could be constitutional and necessary to fend off corruption.
Rick Hasen, law professor at the University of California, Irvine and the author of the Election Law blog, wrote that the Supreme Court could have used the case to call into question all campaign contribution limits but decided it in such a way that avoided making a major change in the law.
"The way the state of Alaska lost today is the least bad way it could lose," Hasen wrote.
In a separate lawsuit, an Anchorage judge ruled in early November that the agency overseeing the state's election laws must resume enforcement of the $500 limit on individual donations to political groups. And the judge asked the state Supreme Court to review the entire Alaska law.
The Alaska Public Office Commission had dropped enforcement in 2012 after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United cast doubt on its constitutionality.
Whatever Alaska courts might do, however, would be trumped by the U.S. Supreme Court, which Monday's decision shows is not likely to change its recent decisions on the subject.
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Voters in two Western cities have delivered a pair of small victories and one substantial loss to advocates for reducing the importance of big money in elections.
Albuquerque narrowly rejected a ballot measure Tuesday to start a system of publicly funded donation vouchers for supporting municipal candidates. The idea has been hailed as a breakthrough for promoting a broader base of interest in elections while diluting the power of corporate cash over campaigns, while critics say it's a totally wrong way to spend taxpayer money.
The voters of New Mexico's biggest city did, however, decide to expand an existing public financing system for mayoral candidates willing to limit their own spending. And the people of San Francisco voted to limit contributions to local candidates and require the people who buy advertising in city elections to disclose their identities.
Albuquerque's "democracy dollars" proposal was the marquee campaign finance idea on the ballot in this off-year election, and it garnered 49 percent support — falling short by 2,039 votes.
"Every city has different political and financial factors that go into whether or not to support a proposition," said Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for a range of campaign finance changes and files lawsuits against alleged abusers of the system. "I know there's a lot of interest in voucher systems for local and state offices so I don't think this loss will deflate the broader movement."
Had it been adopted, the city would have mailed registered voters $25 vouchers. Those vouchers could only have been donated to mayoral or city council candidates who use the city's existing public financing program, which requires them to limit their campaign spending and to collect at least some money as small donations.
The minor public financing win, adopted with 58 percent support, raises from $1 to $1.75 the per-voter subsidies that may be claimed by mayoral candidates.
Graham attributed the loss for the more ambitious proposal to the opponents' argument that the vouchers would disproportionately benefit incumbents. But that has not proved the case in Seattle, the first and only city with such a system, where more newcomers have entered local races since the program was first put to work two years ago.
Seattle experienced its own test of the vouchers this week. Using political action committees, Amazon, labor unions and other businesses spent almost $4 million — a huge amount by local standards — to sway the local elections against candidates who had backed a business tax increase. While one of the seven city council races remained too close to call Wednesday, the six declared winners all accepted vouchers and the accompanying spending limits.
Down the coast in San Francisco, there was overwhelming support for imposing limits on campaign contributions and increasing transparency for political advertisements in local elections.
That ballot initiative, passed with 77 percent, will ban limited liability companies and limited liability partnerships, such as law firms, from contributing to mayoral and council candidates. The measure also blocks contributions from people with a financial stake in city zoning, planning or other land-use matters. And from now on all printed, audio or video advertising must include the names (and contribution amounts above $5,000) for the donors behind the spots.
The proposal was not galvanizing and neither were a handful of ballot measures or Mayor London Breed's run for reelection. Turnout was 22 percent, the lowest the city has seen in a decade.
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