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Campaign Finance Victories in 2020 Elections

From coast to coast, voters endorsed reforms confronting big money in politics.

December 1, 2020
Mark Makela/Getty

The 2020 federal elec­tions cost a record break­ing $14 billion. Also reach­ing unpre­ced­en­ted extremes was the cost of state races, near­ing $1.9 billion. Despite — or perhaps because of — the new extremes of big money spend­ing in polit­ics, voters suppor­ted campaign finance reform ballot initi­at­ives in several states.

The results demon­strate that voters are keen on limit­ing the influ­ence of wealthy interests and increas­ing trans­par­ency in elec­tions. They also signify a grow­ing frus­tra­tion with congres­sional inac­tion to rectify the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

Oregon voters over­whelm­ingly suppor­ted amend­ing the state’s consti­tu­tion to create caps on contri­bu­tions to candid­ates with the passage of Meas­ure 107. Oregon was previ­ously one of a hand­ful of states with no limit­a­tion on campaign contri­bu­tions. The meas­ure origin­ated in the state’s legis­lature, signi­fy­ing support from elec­ted offi­cials who will be most affected by this change. The new law will allow state and local govern­ments to limit contri­bu­tions and expendit­ures, require disclos­ure of contri­bu­tions and expendit­ures, and require trans­par­ency in advert­ise­ments made in support of campaigns.

In Baltimore County, Mary­land, voters suppor­ted a meas­ure creat­ing a public finan­cing program for local candid­ates. The new program will multiply small-dollar dona­tions from indi­vidu­als in a “match­ing” system, encour­aging candid­ates to rely on grass­roots support and be less depend­ent on dona­tions from corpor­a­tions or PACs. With this meas­ure, Baltimore County joins other Mary­land juris­dic­tions that have begun insti­tut­ing public campaign finan­cing systems, includ­ing Mont­gomery County, Howard County, Prince George County, and the city of Baltimore.

In Alaska, Meas­ure 2 squeaked out a win. In addi­tion to the signi­fic­ant changes it will make to elec­tions — includ­ing a new, nonpar­tisan primary system and a ranked-choice general elec­tion system — the meas­ure signi­fic­antly over­hauls statewide campaign finance regu­la­tions. By requir­ing addi­tional disclos­ures for any group spend­ing over $2,000 in-state — and adding trans­par­ency about whether inde­pend­ent expendit­ure groups are funded by in-state or out-of-state money — the meas­ure will rein in dark money. In addi­tion, the new law includes support for an amend­ment to the U.S. Consti­tu­tion allow­ing citizens to regu­late the “rais­ing and spend­ing of money in elec­tions.”

And in Missouri, Amend­ment 3 reversed redis­trict­ing reforms made by initi­at­ive in 2018. This back­slid­ing is a mistake, because it will make it easier for polit­ical interests to influ­ence the redis­trict­ing process. The meas­ure did also lower contri­bu­tion limits for state senate campaigns from $2,500 to $2,400 — it’s an insig­ni­fic­ant change that was never­the­less touted by Amend­ment 3 proponents, show­ing a recog­ni­tion of the public appet­ite for campaign finance reform.

Together, these elec­tions demon­strate a trend of voters support­ing strong rules around campaign finance. Reforms like those found in Alaska, Mary­land, and Oregon will empower citizens to hold politi­cians account­able.