Limiting Limits

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in the Vermont campaign finance case shows strong legal support for reasonable campaign finance reform, and it points the way to enacting such reforms here in Illinois.

Vermont’s law, perhaps the toughest in the nation, is unlike any measure now pending in Illinois. Vermont’s law limited giving to as little as $200, which, the Court noted, “are the lowest in the Nation.” It applied the same limits to individuals, parties and PACs. Limits applied to all giving over a two-year period, rather than applying for each election. Although the law never took effect, the Court suggested that it would have applied to expenses incurred by volunteers even if not reimbursed by a campaign. And perhaps most importantly, it restricted total expenditures. Sizing up all of these restrictions, a plurality of the Court concluded that the Act was unconstitutional.

Showing how complicated this kind of law can be, however, the ruling was not a majority opinion. Four justices (Breyer, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy) agreed that, while some limits are allowable, these are not. Three others (Souter, Stevens, and Ginsburg) concluded not only that some limits are allowable, but that the appellate court should study this further; Justice Stevens suggested he would have upheld these limits. Only two justices, Scalia and Thomas, argued that the Vermont law and also every other restriction on campaign finances are unconstitutional. Even though they could not agree on a single reason, a majority of the justices agreed that Vermont’s laws went too far. As a result of this fracture, the practical impact of this case may be limited.

Illinois, without any limits, remains the Wild West of campaign finance in the USA. Donors can and do give six- and even seven-figure contributions to support a single candidate. The impact of these large contributions cannot be underestimated. Large donors continue to enjoy practical benefits and access unavailable to ordinary citizens. Illinois continues to need campaign finance reforms, and this ruling shows how to craft reforms that respect free speech.

Reform proposals here would likely not run afoul of today’s ruling. Limits legislation now pending in the state legislature, including HB 743 and SB 1822, set higher overall limits, apply limits per election rather than per biennium, allow larger contributions from PACs than from individuals, and higher still from parties; and do not touch overall spending limits. Indeed, Illinois’ current proposals would do nothing more than bring our state into the 20th Century of campaign finance laws.

For a copy of the Supreme Court ruling in Randall v Sorrell, click here (PDF)