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Analysis

Campaign Finance Victories in 2020 Elections

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

December 1, 2020
voting
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.