Current State: Local Campaign Finance Reform

Last month, roughly 60 democracy nerds met at the Lucky Lab, a brewery on Hawthorne Avenue, to pour beers and pore over a pertinent matter. The topic? Recently-passed campaign finance reform bills in Multnomah County and Portland, and their uncertain fate in the Oregon Supreme Court.

In the wake of the 2012 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling—effectively removing limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns—campaign finance reforms have swept across the country from New York City to New Mexico. The Northwest, in recent years, has seemingly become the epicenter for local campaign finance reform, shaking up how campaigns are funded and conducted—a necessary effort to wrest the political process from deep-pocketed interests.

In November 2018, Portland voters passed a city charter amendment banning corporate contributions to local campaigns, limiting individual donations, and requiring the disclosure of funders on campaign materials. Passed by an overwhelming 87 percent margin, the amendment echoes a 2016 campaign finance reform measure which won 89 percent of the Multnomah County vote.

“Every time politicians run, they always say ‘I’m a uniter, not a divider,’” said Juan Carlos, a Lucky Lab attendee. “But by winning nearly nine out of ten votes, we are showing that our movement is the true uniter, uniting all despite race, color, political affiliation or gender.”

Julia DeGraw, the interim director of Portland Forward, which sponsored the event, emphasized the importance of the movement.

“The statistic I keep coming back to is that since there are no limits to campaign contributions, Oregon has the second-most expensive elections in the country, behind New Jersey,” DeGraw said. “If we want to balance the political process for working voters, we need to pass campaign finance reform.”

It’s true: Oregon is one of only a handful of states without any campaign contribution limits. These voter-backed efforts promise to serve as a bulwark to corporate dominance of the political process, but there are questions whether they will survive a legal challenge. Money is political speech, after all, and Oregon’s liberal free-speech interpretations have prevented previous efforts to impose campaign finance restrictions.

This explains why so many democracy nerds congregated in Lucky Lab to beg the question: would Portland and Multnomah County’s measures survive a legal challenge at the Oregon Supreme Court?

“Typically, such a case goes to the County Circuit Court, then it goes to the Court of Appeals, and it takes two years to resolve it there,” said attorney Dan Meek, chief petitioner for both initiatives. “But in an unusual move, the Oregon Supreme Court bypassed the Court of Appeals and took the case on directly, which is very good news.”

Meek pointed out that none of the current state Supreme Court judges were involved in a prior 1997 decision that determined the state constitution’s free speech clause prevented any limits on campaign contributions.

Although the State Supreme Court’s precedent allowing unfettered campaign contributions has been on the books for over twenty years, the Court has veered widely from previous decisions on other topics, like same-sex marriage for instance. “Many [Oregon Supreme Court] decisions upheld restrictions on same-sex marriage,” Meek said. “And that all ended about five years ago.”

“All other 36 states with similar free-speech clauses have some sort of campaign finance reform law,” DeGraw said. “We believe it’s time for Gov. Kate Brown to refer a constitutional amendment placing limits on campaign contributions to the state legislature. If this amendment needs to be voted on by Oregon voters, we are confident it would pass.”

Obviously, there is a chance that the current Oregon Supreme Court could overturn the campaign finance measures. Concerns were voiced by Lucky Lab attendees as to what message such a decision would send.

Overturning the two voter-approved measures by the state’s top court would be “unfortunate,” said Erik Fletcher, who was involved with the campaign to pass the Portland measure. “It would prove our point that average people do not have enough say and our judicial systems are doing more to protect monied interests than uplift the voices of working people.”

Listen to audio from the Lucky Lab meeting here.

Written by Kyle Curtis