When it comes to campaign finance, Michigan just invited the worst of both worlds. The legislature has passed a bill that would not only let candidates accept larger checks, but would also keep the sources of election spending hidden.
Last week’s bill doubled the amount that individuals can give directly to politicians. For a statewide race, a donor who could have given up to $3,400 to one candidate would now be able to give $6,800.
Michigan is not alone in raising its contribution limits. In 2013, eight other states have dramatically increased the amount that individuals may give to candidates, parties, and political groups. Limits to statewide candidates have doubled in Minnesota, more than doubled in Wyoming, and increased sixfold in Florida.
The impetus for much of this action has been the unlimited election spending wrought by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. With independent groups spending heavily at the state level, candidates say they need more money to compete.
Of course, raising limits will do more than empower candidates; it will also empower top election spenders. Take Michigan, for example: the old cap of $3,400 was already far more than most Michiganders could spend on an election. In the most recent cycle, 99.99 percent of citizens did not bump up against this limit. Raising the limit will only affect the .01% of Michigan residents who could give more, and lawmakers will now have twice the incentive to court these top donors.
The new rules could also invite misconduct, as the Supreme Court has long recognized that direct contributions may lead to corruption or its appearance. And, according to a recent USA Today article, raising limits also leads small donors to give less money to candidates, further disempowering most constituents.
To assuage lawmakers wary of these effects, some states have coupled the limit increases with added disclosure requirements. In Connecticut, for example, a measure that doubled contribution limits to political parties also required groups that spend money just before an election to disclose their top five donors.
But Michigan’s bill goes in the opposite direction. Along with inviting more money into the political system, the bill also shields the identities of funders behind ‘issue ads,’ ads that do not expressly ask viewers to vote for or against candidates. In recent years, more and more out-of-state groups have used issue ads to impact state-level elections. Michigan’s bill keeps donors to these groups untraceable, leaving voters unaware of who is attempting to influence their government. That does not bode well for the integrity of the state’s elections. As Maine Senator Angus King said, “Nobody’s allowed to go to a Maine town meeting with a bag over their head. If you want to influence public policy, tell us who you are.” The Brennan Center has spoken out against Michigan’s move, and will continue to argue that robust disclosure is a necessary component of a healthy electoral process.
The trend of raising contribution limits is troubling, but the embrace of secrecy in election spending is even worse. Michigan governor Rick Snyder campaigned against anonymous issue ads when running for office in 2010. He should stay true to his convictions and veto this legislation.