Last week’s elections brought some fresh reminders about the power of money in politics. Dark money spending reached new heights, the super PAC to end super PACs had a bad day at the polls, and the Senate’s foremost foe of campaign finance regulation became its majority leader. But at the state and local level, some voters also acted to limit the power of money in politics.
Voters in Tallahassee, Florida, and in Arkansas passed new rules to regulate campaign contributions. Tallahassee’s referendum will increase the importance of small donations by lowering contribution limits and creating a tax refund for contributions up to $25. Arkansas’ new constitutional amendment will prohibit corporate and labor contributions to candidates.
Both proposals also strengthen the rules around ethical conduct by elected officials. Tallahassee officials are expected to write an ethics code in the coming months, and retiring politicians in Arkansas must now wait two years before becoming lobbyists.
Further north, the elections brought an unexpected win for public financing. Republican Larry Hogan became governor of deep blue Maryland despite being significantly outspent by his opponent. Earlier this year, Hogan distinguished himself as the first candidate in decades to accept public funds, giving him about $2.6 million with which to compete. As his campaign spokesman said this summer, the funds “enable us to mount an aggressive challenge to one-party rule in Maryland," presenting voters with a viable alternative to the big-spending Democrat in the race.
Voters also expressed their disapproval of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Localities in Ohio, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Florida passed non-binding measures calling on their legislators to support a constitutional amendment that allows for campaign spending regulation. Sixteen state legislatures and more than 500 municipalities have passed similar resolutions.
These results show that despite resistance to campaign finance regulation in Washington, many Americans still favor reforms of the system by which money influences both our elections and our elected officials. Their concerns are registered with changes at the state and local level.
This small ball tactic matches the reality of today’s campaign finance landscape. In recent years, a pattern of deregulation at the federal level has made its way into state and local elections. As the Brennan Center recently showed, the Citizens United decision in particular is affecting low-level races in the states. While the federal government is unwilling or unable to respond to their own deregulatory trend, voters may take it upon themselves to regulate money in politics close to home.