Data: EXography

Federal court rulings prompt wave of states hiking campaign contribution limits

Percent increase in contribution cap

Letting money talk

Nine states have significantly loosened dollar caps on campaign donations, with more in the works. Roll over a state for more info.
Source: Center for Competitive Politics Opinion,Op-Eds,Supreme Court,Campaign Finance,Campaigns,EXography,FEC,Citizens United

Federal court rulings that struck down limits on independent spending in elections in 2010 triggered a wave of 13 new state laws raising or eliminating campaign contribution limits for candidates, parties, and political action committees.

The laws were in reaction to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and the subsequent D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in v. Federal Election Commission that created Super PACs, according to a new report from the Center for Competitive Politics.

With independent spending groups playing a larger role in campaigns, candidates and their political parties are often pushed to the sidelines by low caps on campaign contributions.

While there are many strong First Amendment and pro-electoral competition reasons for increasing or eliminating contribution limits, lawmakers appear to be most concerned with giving candidates and political parties a stronger voice in election campaigns by allowing candidates and parties to raise more funds.

The move to increase contribution limits is bipartisan. For example, Minnesota Democratic State Rep. Ryan Winkler said low limits mean big dollar donors give their money to third party groups that spend on behalf of candidates. As a result, he said, "the candidate becomes relatively insignificant in the election."

The CCP report surveyed the activity of state legislatures since 2010, the year of the Citizens United and rulings, finding that more than one-third of the 38 states that impose contribution limits on individuals have increased or repealed them.

In the last year alone, nine states - Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wyoming - have either raised or eliminated various contribution limits.

Of the nine states, five increased their limits by 100 percent or more, two more increased their limits by 50 percent, and one (Alabama) repealed its limit on direct corporate contributions to candidates, making Alabama the sixth state in the country to impose no limits on the size or source of campaign contributions.

More states may soon follow. Vermont increased its limits in January, and Oklahoma is considering raising its limits.

The reaction in state legislatures demonstrates how litigation can leverage a legislative response. The court rulings in Citizens United and boosted First Amendment political speech freedoms, and now states are expanding them even further.

Even with these liberalized limits, many states continue to impose low contribution limits. Thirteen states limit contributions from citizens to candidates for state representative (or the equivalent) at just $1,000 or even less per election cycle.

On the other end of the spectrum, 12 states allow unlimited contributions from individuals to gubernatorial or legislative candidates.

States that continue to impose extremely low contribution limits on their citizens may find themselves in court.

The Supreme Court tossed out Vermont's contribution limits in 2006, saying they were too low, and Montana's low limits are under a pending legal challenge.

The strong legislative response in favor of allowing more campaign speech via campaign contributions may mark the beginning of a renaissance for restoring First Amendment freedoms to those choosing to participate in politics.

For decades, the trend in campaign finance legislation and regulation was to lower limits and increase restrictions.

Contribution limits failed to reduce the appearance of corruption, however, and the growing legal pushback against restrictions on political participation has states looking for a new path.

Whatever the motivation, the higher contribution limits are good news for those who favor competitive elections.

Because incumbents have built in advantages from higher name identification and other perks of office, challengers typically raise a higher percentage of their campaign contributions from larger donors.

Higher contribution limits give challengers a better chance to broadcast their message and compete with incumbents.

Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics.

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