State Campaign Finance Laws in Crosshairs

 

The full effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to allow limitless corporate spending in candidate elections remains to be seen. But already, 24 states' campaign finance laws seem likely to be nullified because of the controversial ruling.

The New York Times reported on Saturday (Jan. 23) that states from Ohio to Montana are bracing for their election laws to be deemed unconstitutional in the wake of the court's 5-4 ruling. The decision also prevents states from adopting new spending limits in elections, since the justices deemed such measures unconstitutional.

The decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission — which, at its heart, says corporations and labor unions enjoy First Amendment protections — could have the greatest impact in the very places where existing state laws are likely to fall.

At the state and local level, a few extra thousand dollars in advertising or corporate-sponsored direct-mailings could drastically alter an election. In South Dakota, for example, home to a number of credit card companies, candidates who raised more than $100,000 in the 2006 election cycle were at the high end of fundraising, according to the secretary of state's office. In such comparatively low-budget elections, any additional spending can have a great impact on a race.

The question of state laws was not lost on the Supreme Court.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted the lack of evidence that the 26 states without expenditure bans have become corrupted — a crucial deficiency spotlighted by the ruling's supporters. Indeed, The New York Times on Sunday (Jan. 24) raised the question of whether corporate money leads to corruption and seemed left with, essentially, little other than uncertainty.

But Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the minority, said the court was inserting itself in state matters and potentially quashing the will of the voters. That could be a potent argument in Colorado, where a 2002 voter-approved ballot initiative limiting spending is likely be challenged due to the high court's decision, The Denver Post reported .

These concerns are heightened when judges overrule settled doctrine upon which the legislature has relied," Stevens wrote. "It compounds the offense by implicitly striking down a great many state laws as well."

At least for the time being, the court's ruling is final, despite efforts by President Obama and congressional Democrats' to pursue legislation seeking to soften the impact.

Meanwhile, the impact of the decision on midterm congressional elections- as well as the 37 governors' seats and 46 state legislatures that will be at stake in November — is being hotly debated.

The New York Times editorial board, for example, called the decision a "blow to democracy," while The Wall Street Journal's editorial board countered that it is " a free speech landmark."

 
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