This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the case that keeps on giving – if you are a deep-pocketed donor looking to swing an election.
Citizens United was the January decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down crucial federal limits on corporate campaign spending. In part, it overturned a key provision of the McCain-Feingold ban on corporate and union “issue ads” in the days immediately preceding an election.
Now the ruling has reached its tentacles to Washington to strangle a similar state provision aimed at limiting the ability of big money to evade accountability for late hits.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled earlier this month that a state law prohibiting contributions larger than $5,000 in the final three weeks of ballot measure campaigns was unconstitutional. Leighton cited the Citizens United case as a basis for his decision.
The case wasn’t a total loss for the state. Family PAC, a group involved in trying to undo the state’s “everything but marriage” law for gay couples last year, had also challenged the state’s requirement to identify donors who contribute more than $25.
Such disclosure is a cornerstone of Washington’s campaign spending law. Had the state lost on that point, it would have been a major blow to the right of voters to know who is trying to influence their votes.
Fortunately, Leighton found that allowing voters to follow the money doesn’t run afoul of the Constitution. But the judge was tougher on the state’s ban on last-minute large contributions to ballot measure campaigns.
The objective behind the state’s 21-day window is to get big donors on record early so that voters get a timely picture of who is bankrolling a campaign. The deadline is especially important in the age of all-mail voting, when voters often return their ballots weeks ahead of an election.
Early mail voters still take the risk of casting their ballot without the benefit of having considered last-minute attacks – the law governs contributions, not expenditures. But at least they voted knowing who could have underwritten those attacks.
Leighton said the state could possibly justify having a deadline for large contributions – just not one that falls as early as Washington’s. Election regulators may have once needed three weeks to gather, organize and disseminate campaign finance information, the judge reasoned. Now contributions can be reported and made publicly available quickly.
But electronic filing and instantaneous access to online databases is of no help to that voter who – out of necessity or choice – returns his ballot 16 days before an election, only to be blindsided when a moneyed interest inserts itself into the campaign 14 days before the election.
State officials are considering whether to appeal, or to take Leighton up on his implicit invitation to set a new deadline. Whatever they do, they should fight to give voters as much notice as possible about who is trying to buy their votes.