Best and Worst Moments of 2015 for Money in Politics and Voting Rights
- Ballot Initiative Victories Strengthen Campaign Finance Laws: Citizens of Seattle approved a ballot measure creating a new democracy voucher public campaign financing system. Every eligible Seattle voter will receive four $25 vouchers to contribute to the candidate of their choice. Meanwhile, citizens of Maine approved a ballot measure strengthening the state’s long-existing public financing system.
- Discriminatory Voter ID Law Struck Down in Texas: In Veasey v. Perry, the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that Texas’s voter photo identification law has a discriminatory effect on minorities in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Campaign Legal Center represents the lead plaintiffs, Marc Veasey, et al., in the case.
- Creation of Voting Rights Institute: Since 2013, CLC has been working to train the next generation of voting rights litigators. This year we formalized these efforts with the launch of the Voting Rights Institute with the American Constitution Society and Georgetown Law.
- Supreme Court Allows Partisan Gerrymandering Case to Go Forward: In Shapiro v. McManus, SCOTUS unanimously reversed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and held that the plaintiff’s First Amendment partisan gerrymandering claim was not “wholly insubstantial” and the plaintiff was therefore entitled to present the claim to a three-court judge, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2284. CLC participated as amici supporting plaintiff’s position.
- Contractor Contribution Ban Upheld: In Wagner v. FEC, the en banc D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) provision that prohibits contributions made in connection with federal elections by federal government contractors. CLC participated as amici supporting the constitutionality of the law.
- Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar: SCOTUS held that Florida’s ban on the personal solicitation of campaign funds by candidates for judgeships is consistent with the First Amendment. The Court found that Florida’s personal solicitation ban, like similar restrictions adopted in 30 of the 39 states that elect judges, protects the appearance and actuality of an impartial judiciary.
- Disclosure Victories in Courts from Coast-to-Coast: This year, once again, anti-disclosure litigants made little headway in their nationwide effort to dismantle campaign disclosure laws: although challenges to disclosure provisions have continued to proliferate, courts have been overwhelmingly supportive of such laws. For instance, in Delaware Strong Families v. Attorney General of Delaware, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in July reversed a lower court decision and upheld the Delaware Elections Disclosure Act, a broad disclosure law applicable to independent electioneering communications.
There has also been continuing success in Van Hollen v. FEC. This is a long-running challenge to a 2007 FEC regulation that plaintiffs claim improperly narrowed the scope of federal disclosure requirements connected to “electioneering communications” by providing that only donors that earmarked their contributions for election ads were subject to disclosure. Although this case is currently on appeal, the most recent decision in November 2014 from the district court supported plaintiffs, holding that the FEC rule was “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.”
Finally, as in years past, many of 2015’s positive decisions were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court—but the Court thus far has declined to grant certiorari in any state campaign finance disclosure case in which it has been petitioned following Citizens United. This year, for instance, the Court denied cert in Yamada v. Snipes (9th Cir.) (upholding Hawaii independent spending disclosure requirements); Utter v. Bldg. Indus. Ass’n of Wash. (Wash. Sup. Ct.) (upholding Washington state political committee disclosure requirements); and Vt. Right to Life Comm., Inc. v. Sorrell (2d Cir.) (upholding Vermont independent spending disclosure requirements).
- Transparency on the Airwaves: In response to a petition filed by CLC and its allies, the Federal Communications Commission launched a proceeding to consider extending online disclosure requirements for broadcasters’ political files to cable, satellite and radio providers. The comments filed by CLC also urged the FCC to implement machine-readable formatting requirements so the data will be put to its best use.
- Alabama Voter ID and DMV Closures: Alabama closed DMV offices in majority African-American communities thus making it more difficult for people living in these communities to vote and participate fully and effectively in the democratic process. A lawsuit challenging Alabama’s voter photo ID law is pending.
- Blatant Campaign Finance Violations by the Presidential Candidates: Candidates delayed announcements of candidacy in order to raise soft money and openly are coordinating with “their” super PACs. The Campaign Legal Center filed a number of complaints with the FEC against Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and Martin O’Malley for multiple violations of FECA.
- Senator McConnell Puts FECA in the Crosshairs: McConnell made repeated attempts to weaken federal campaign finance law by adding riders to omnibus spending bills. The final omnibus bill blocks the SEC from acting on a proposed rule requiring corporate disclosure to shareholders and prohibits the IRS from moving forward on important dark money rulemakings.
- Little to Celebrate on the FEC’s 40 Year Anniversary: It was a rough year for the FEC with internal disagreements between the Commissioners becoming increasingly public. But Commissioner Lee Goodman’s public revelation that he was holding up the resolution of enforcement matters for partisan reasons was, in our view, a particularly low moment for the agency. CLC provided expertise on drafting and helped secure bipartisan co-sponsorship of a bill to fix the FEC by changing its composition from six commissioners to five and effectively ending the constant deadlock.
- Wisconsin Morass: In a highly-controversial decision, the Wisconsin state Supreme Court ruled in July to block a “John Doe” investigation into potential coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign and a number of deep-pocketed outside groups. In so ruling, the state court held that the regulation of coordinated expenditures could not constitutionally extend beyond express advocacy, effectively blowing a huge loophole in the state’s contribution limits and disclosure laws. Compounding the problem, Governor Walker recently signed into law several measures that further dismantle Wisconsin’s campaign finance reforms. The first broke up the very effective Government Accountability Board and replaced it with two partisan commissions modeled after a dysfunctional FEC. The second measure makes it easier for candidates to coordinate with issue advocacy groups and doubles certain contribution limits. An additional measure limits so-called “John Doe” investigations into political crimes and misconduct in office.
- Veasey v. Perry: The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s finding that the Texas voter ID law was motivated by discriminatory intent and vacated the district court’s holding that the law constituted an unconstitutional poll tax. The Circuit has yet to decide the petition for rehearing, meanwhile the discriminatory law remains in effect impacting over half a million Texas voters with each passing election.