About the Case
In December 2016, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court challenging S.B. 1107, legislation which amended California’s Political Reform Act to empower the state and local governments to establish citizen-funded elections.
What’s at Stake?
Many states and municipalities across the country have adopted public financing programs for their elections. Courts have long recognized that public financing can help combat actual and apparent corruption, and also facilitate communication between elected officials and a broader swath of voters beyond wealthy donors. HJTA’s suit seeks to deprive California’s municipalities—and the state as a whole—of the opportunity to adopt public financing programs, if they so choose.
In 1974, California voters enacted the Political Reform Act (PRA), a comprehensive reform package passed as a statewide initiative in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In 1988, the PRA was amended by another ballot initiative, Proposition 73, which banned the public financing of elections in California. The California Supreme Court later held that the ban could not apply to charter cities, but—prior to S.B. 1107’s enactment—the ban still applied to non-charter cities, as well as to legislative and statewide elections.
S.B. 1107 amended the PRA to provide California municipalities and the state as a whole with the option of adopting public financing programs. Under the California Constitution and the terms of the PRA, a legislative amendment to the PRA must (1) pass the state legislature with a two-thirds majority vote, and (2) further the PRA’s purposes. S.B. 1107 received the requisite two-thirds support in both legislative chambers, but HJTA contends that the bill is invalid because it does not further the purposes of the PRA.
The PRA’s purposes are expressed in the law itself, and include 1) combatting political corruption by reducing candidates’ reliance on large contributions from lobbyists and special interests “who thereby gain disproportionate influence over governmental decisions;” 2) creating more responsive state and local governments that serve “citizens equally, without regard to their wealth;” and 3) ensuring fair elections by abolishing “laws and practices [that] unfairly favor incumbents.” By giving California municipalities the ability to adopt public financing programs, S.B. 1107 advances each of these objectives.
In the landmark campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court held that public financing can “reduce the harmful influence of large contributions on our political process,” “facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process” and “relieve…candidates from the rigors of soliciting private contributions.” Federal courts have continued to recognize the democratic benefits of public financing in recent years.
Moreover, a substantial body of research demonstrates that the impact of citizen-funded elections is consistent with the PRA’s core purposes. Researchers at the Campaign Finance Institute, for example, found that New York City’s matching funds program, after being expanded in 2001, significantly increased the number of small individual donors and their proportional importance to City Council candidates.
The same team also found that the city’s public financing program sparked an increase in campaign contributions from individuals living in socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhoods, suggesting that the program spurred participating candidates to interact with a larger and more diverse segment of the city’s population. Additionally, a 2008 survey found that state legislative candidates accepting full public funding devoted significantly more time to direct voter outreach and non-fundraising campaign activities, such as canvassing and public speaking, than candidates who did not participate in public financing.
Finally, analysis of elections in jurisdictions with public financing show these systems bolster measures of electoral competiveness, and may even weaken incumbents’ advantages over challengers. Maine’s clean elections law immediately increased the number of candidates and decreased the margin of victory in state senate elections in districts where a candidate accepted public funding. Connecticut reported similar increases in the number of legislative candidates and contested races after introducing its public financing program in 2008. More broadly, the National Institute for Money in State Politics found that far more state legislative elections in 2013-14 in states with citizen-funded elections were contested (87% vs. 61%) and were monetarily competitive (41% vs. 18%) than in states without public financing.
CLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief on June 28, 2017, arguing that given the judicial findings and academic research referenced above, providing California’s state and local governments with the option of implementing citizen-funded elections clearly furthers the PRA’s purposes. S.B. 1107 was therefore passed in accordance with state law and appropriately modernizes the Political Reform Act.