This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Campaign-finance rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week are good news for proponents of disclosure, bad news for those concerned about the influence of big money in elections.
Both are, however, in line with recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court has been supportive of campaign disclosure – most recently in a Washington state case. Gay-rights opponents sought to keep secret the names of those who signed petitions for Referendum 71, a ballot measure that would have overturned domestic partnerships. But the high court said the state law requiring disclosure was constitutional.
In that light, the 9th Circuit’s ruling last week – that this state can also require disclosure of the names and addresses of anyone contributing as little as $25 to an election campaign – makes sense. If the state can require disclosure of names on petitions, it’s not a great leap to requiring disclosure of those giving money to campaigns.
The other 9th Circuit decision – striking down this state’s limit on contributions by any one person of more than $5,000 to a ballot measure campaign within 21 days of a general election – also is in keeping with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. That court has struck down limits on campaign contributions, considering them restrictions on free speech.
In fact, emphasizing disclosure is one way to get at the problems associated with big contributions. As long as voters know who is giving money to campaigns, they can make more informed decisions. Many people, for instance, were put off by the enormous amount of money Costco donated in support of a November initiative to privatize liquor sales. (Not enough to vote down the measure, however.)
The 9th Circuit judges also made the point that the 21-day limit doesn’t make much sense anymore in the Internet age. Any contributions still must be reported within 24 hours, and that disclosure is published online. Competing campaigns have plenty of time to discover those donations and make political hay out of them.
Those last-minute contributions don’t have as much impact today as they once might have. With the entire state voting by mail, and ballots going out almost three weeks before elections, many people will have already voted before those contributions could be spent on TV and print advertisements, mailers or robo-calls.
The 9th Circuit’s rulings are sound and likely to pass muster if challenged.