States Unite to Fight Citizens United

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May 20, 2012; Source: Fox News

On what contentious public policy issue might the states of California, Mississippi, Idaho and Vermont all agree? These four states, along with eighteen others and the District of Columbia, have signed on to support the State of Montana as the constitutionality of a century-old state regulation on corporate political expenditures is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why does this matter for the average nonprofit? If you are heavily engaged in advocacy work, you’re probably already following these developments. But if you’re not, you may want to rethink your priorities, because the nature of American democracy is at a critical crossroads.

At issue is whether Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which prohibited independent expenditures by corporations to influence political campaigns, is constitutional given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. In the Citizens United case, the Court gave corporations and unions the green light to flood the political process with money through 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups that do not have to disclose their donors.

The Montana case arose after a conservative, Virginia-based 501(c)(4), American Tradition Partnership, sued the state, complaining that the Corrupt Practices Act restricted free speech. The state defends the law as necessary to protect Montana’s democratic process from undue influence by large corporations that have historically dominated its economy. After a series of lower court decisions and reversals, the matter is now before the Supreme Court.

Montana isn’t alone in having state campaign finance regulations that are more restrictive than federal law. A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of Arizona’s 1998 Clean Elections Law in its first direct case related to public campaign financing since Citizens United. The Montana case has even broader policy ramifications, and thus is a bellwether for many other state laws. A decision is expected later this month.

While the fight over Citizens United isn’t over, many states are testing new models for using public campaign financing to combat the undue influence of money in electoral politics. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed expanding a New York City public campaign financing program that matches individual campaign contributions by city residents (up to the first $175) to become a statewide program. The program appears to comply with the requirements of the Citizens United decision while also magnifying the impact of small donors on campaign financing. According to research by the nonpartisan Campaign Financing Institute, the NYC program appears to “stimulate participation by small donors in a manner that is healthy for democracy.”

Are you tracking emerging public campaign financing trends in your state? What do you see? –Kathi Jaworski