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The Campaign Finance Wins Nobody is Talking About

Despite resistance to campaign finance regulation in Washington, voters at the state and local level took steps last week to limit the power of money in politics.

  • Avram Billig
November 12, 2014

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.

(Photo: Flickr/Light­Bri­gad­ing)