Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 5 Transcript

Contribution Limits (and Lack Thereof)

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Alisa Kaplan: I saw so much talent being stifled, good candidates who didn't want to run because they didn't want to have to raise these vast sums of money in the way that you have to raise them in contemporary politics.

Simone Leeper: This is Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director of Reform for Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on the role of money in politics.

Kaplan: I saw, particularly in Illinois, a political machine that was fed by money, big money, that often seemed more interested in perpetuating its own power than it did in serving the needs of voters.

Leeper: At her organization, Alisa is at the forefront of the fight for better campaign finance regulation. Since the Citizens United Supreme Court case in 2010, which enabled corporations and other outside groups to engage in unlimited amounts of campaign spending, the cost of running an election has reached astronomical heights. Nearly every election cycle since has broken records in money that's raised and spent on campaigns. What does this mean for voters and their ability to elect someone who best represents their interests?

As the cost of federal elections rises into the tens of billions, how is this spending playing out at the state and local level and what measures are being taken in state houses and city halls to make sure that voters' voices not just the deepest pocketbooks are heard? I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy.

In this episode, we'll explore campaign finance contribution limits at the state level and the effect they have on voters' abilities, both to elect candidates of their choice and also to hold elected officials accountable. Reform for Illinois was founded by former United States Senator Paul Simon, a Democrat, and Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra, a Republican, in 1997. Their goal, to fix what they believed to be the biggest problem in politics, the influence and power of money.

Kaplan: We act as a watchdog by tracking the money in campaigns ourselves. We help educate the public through research that we do on who's funding candidates and what role money is playing, and we also advocate for legislation to try to change some of these problems.

Leeper: The first thing Alisa mentioned was that the influx of money into Illinois elections made the process of competing in a run for office harder for many people who didn't have personal wealth or rich supporters.

Kaplan: Good candidates were drowned out by opponents who had seemingly endless amounts of money at their disposal, either because they had personal wealth or because they had connections to donors with deep pockets.

Leeper: The high price of running for office often makes it impossible for candidates who don't have the financial means or social connections to raise enormous amounts of capital. This is especially the case in states with no limits on donations to candidates for state level office.

Trevor Potter: We have a real patchwork of regulation of money in politics in this country. We have 50 states. It's fair to say there are probably 50 different systems.

Leeper: Trevor Potter is the founder and president of Campaign Legal Center.

Potter: Some have no limits at all. Every state in theory requires disclosure of the money that is spent and given, but that's often avoided.

Leeper: So, why does this matter?

Potter: Much of our lives are governed by local officials and state officials. If you live in a state with no limits of any kind, the risk  is that the interest with the most money will end up dictating policy in that state or will avoid regulation.

Leeper: In states that have no regulations on how a candidate for office raises money for their campaign, it's difficult for voters to know who is behind the actual policy decisions that impact their day-to-day lives. This is the case in states like Alabama, Oregon, and Virginia that have no limits on campaign contributions to candidates for state level positions like state legislator, attorney general, and even governor.

Potter: It's important to realize that many of the things that we rely on government to regulate for our safety and health can be undermined if special interests have too much influence. Whether it's air pollution, delivery of safe food, the price of gas, all of that can be affected by state legislatures and state governments, and we often don't see it. We just wonder why it is that that river is still polluted or why it is that some basic service doesn't seem to work very well, and it may well be because of campaign contributions.

Leeper: Patrick Llewellyn, the Director of State Campaign Finance at Campaign Legal Center, had more to say about this.

Patrick Llewellyn: When candidates can take huge amounts of money from donors, the risk of trading political favors for campaign cash grows. But even without an explicit quid pro quo, when elected officials enact policies that invariably benefit large campaign donors, the perception of corruption and that our government is for sale can be incredibly harmful for democracy.

Leeper: To reduce opportunities for political corruption, we need laws in place to limit the influence of wealthy donors, and this sometimes means banning certain types of contributors for making any contribution at all. Laws at the federal level ban corporations from making direct contributions to candidates, and some states and municipalities ban corporate money for state and local elections as well. Patrick says establishing robust campaign finance regulation and strengthening contribution limits in particular is crucial for our democracy.

Llewellyn: A good system of contribution limits covers all of the gaps and ensures that there are limits on the amount of money coming into political parties and political committees that are able to contribute to candidates

Leeper: Back in Illinois, there are technically campaign contribution limits, though they didn't get enacted until 2011. Here's Alisa.

Kaplan: The implementation of those contribution limits came after a huge scandal, which was the impeachment and later conviction of our governor Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat after President Obama became president.

Leeper: The scandal made headlines back in 2009 and a law was implemented that limited candidates in each election cycle to receiving contributions of $5,000 from individuals, 10,000 from businesses and labor unions, and $50,000 from political action committees.

Kaplan: Our campaign contribution limits are comparatively high compared to the federal level and many other states, and we have a number of loopholes, the most problematic of which and the one that has the biggest impact on our campaign finance system and our politics in general is what we call the self-funding loophole or the millionaire's exemption.

Leeper: There's a provision in Illinois law that was originally intended to help candidates who are less wealthy or less connected compete with independently wealthy candidates who can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their campaigns. Under this law, if a candidate uses a lot of their personal wealth to fund their own campaign, that lifts the contribution limits for all the other candidates in the race.

Llewellyn: This law was put in place ostensibly to deal with the fact that the Supreme Court has previously struck down limits on self-funding and political campaigns, meaning that contribution limits don't apply to a candidate giving their own personal funds to a campaign.


Leeper: The Illinois law would allow the other candidates in the race to bypass the campaign limits.

Llewellyn: The idea was that this would counterbalance self-funders, but what it's become is a loophole that concentrates power in the hands of a few wealthy donors.

Leeper: Alisa explains with a concrete example from recent elections for governor in Illinois.

Kaplan: The idea was if you have, for example, our current Governor J. B. Pritzker, who's a billionaire and heir to the Hyatt Hotel Fortune, he can spend as much money as he wants on his own campaign.

Leeper: Governor Pritzker did in fact spend hundreds of millions of his own dollars in his first election in 2018 and again during his 2022 reelection bid.

Kaplan: But his opponents, if this provision hadn't been in effect, would've had to collect money in around $6,000 increments, which is the contribution limit for an individual in Illinois. You might reasonably think it's unfair for a wealthy candidate to be able to spend as much of his money as he wants on a campaign and his non-wealthy opponent who doesn't have that ability has to go around collecting these small increments of money.

The idea was to get rid of contribution caps in those situations so that the non-wealthy candidate would be able to raise 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, $500,000 to compete more easily with the wealthy candidates.

Leeper: The result is that even though Illinois enacted contribution limits in 2009, those limits have been lifted in every Illinois governor's race since the 2014 election. Each election has featured a wealthy person self-funding their campaign, an intent on busting the caps. Sure enough, candidates running for other state level positions began to find ways to trigger the loophole too, getting rid of contribution caps in their own races. They do this through loans that were just over the existing cap, as Alisa explains.

Kaplan: They will lend themselves $100,001, get contribution caps off their races, and then immediately rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where is that money coming from? Special interests of all different kinds.

Leeper: Illinois law doesn't specify how candidates can spend that money. This means that a candidate can loan their campaign $100,001, accept checks from wealthy donors, and immediately pay their loan back to themselves. Here's Patrick.

Llewellyn: In that way, the system only benefits candidates who not only don't have to give the money to their campaign, but can afford to simply front a large loan to their campaign knowing that it will be paid back.

Leeper: Unlimited secret money from wealthy special interests drowns out the voices of everyday people, effectively preventing voters from making progress on key issues that impact their daily lives. Voters need real transparency about who's spending big money on elections and who's going to advocate for their needs.

Kaplan: This provision that was supposed to help level the playing field between wealthy candidates and non-wealthy candidates has ended up being used to consolidate power among a very few big party leaders in our state and to amplify the power of special interests and wealthy individuals who have the ability to make these big donations.

Leeper: There is little motivation, however, to change this system as long as the legislators who would make the change continue to benefit from the self-funding loophole.

Kaplan: Think about the fact that the four legislative leaders, the people who basically run our state house in Springfield, all take advantage of this loophole every couple of years. They loan themselves that money, they get their contribution caps blown off, and they take in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They're consolidating their power by using this provision. There's very little incentive for them to upend that system that they've learned how to play very well and to change this role. Once you've got these laws in place, they create a system that then everybody who's a part of that system has an incentive to maintain the status quo.

Leeper: The loophole in Illinois law effectively means there are almost never any limits on campaign contributions in high profile races in the state, but there are actually five other states across the country that have no caps on campaign contributions at all. In Virginia, there are no limits on either the dollar amount of contributions or the sources of campaign donations.

This means that individuals and corporations alike can legally spend as much money on one campaign as they want to. Here's Trevor, CLC's president and founder, explaining the significance of Virginia's lack of campaign contribution limits.

Potter: That is often cited as a good system because in theory, everyone knows how much is being contributed and voters can make their own judgements.

Leeper: But Trevor says there are two issues with this. One, in some cases, the ultra wealthy corporations will give huge amounts of money that smaller groups just can't compete with, essentially drowning out their voices. And two, voters don't, in fact, always know who is behind campaign donations.

Potter: It's very easy to get around disclosure requirements by having it given by an LLC and the members are secret, or having it given by some organization like a 501(c)(4) that doesn't disclose its donors. You have both the danger of unlimited contributions and the greater danger of secret unlimited contributions so you don't know who is actually spending all that money to buy influence.

Leeper: Much like Alisa, Trevor thinks changing the way money operates in political campaigns is tricky because the only people with the power to enact reform are usually benefiting from the system as it exists now.

Potter: That's why you usually see that proposals to change money in politics come from citizen initiatives in states that provide for such initiatives because there is no incentive for members of a legislature to cut off their sources of funding or to limit them, making it harder to raise money to run.

Leeper: In the last episode of Democracy Decoded, we explained all about ballot initiatives and how they can work to make laws that the citizens want, but legislators don't. In Oregon, this is one tool voters are using to try to get more campaign finance regulations enacted, and it's been a long journey to get there.

Kate Titus: Oregon's one of the few states that doesn't limit campaign contributions at all.

Leeper: That's Kate Titus. She's the executive director of the Oregon Chapter of Common Cause. Common Cause is a nonpartisan nonprofit that supports national, state, and local efforts to strengthen democracy. Like Kate mentioned, Oregon is another of those five states that have no campaign contribution limits, but it wasn't always like that. Oregon had campaign contribution limits up until the early 1970s when the legislature removed them.

Rather than restricting the money flowing into campaigns, they opted instead to regulate it on the other side, restricting the way campaigns spend their money. This allowed campaign financing to run amuck. The cost of campaigns in Oregon increased every year, except for one blip, in 1996 when voters established the contribution limits once again. Here's Kate.

Titus: The voters passed limits in the 1990s, and it was very effective. The next cycle of elections, a broader scope of candidates could afford to run and the amount of money in those campaigns was limited.

Leeper: But soon after limits were enacted, the Oregon State Supreme Court ruled that they went against the state's constitutional protections for free expression. This is a common argument made by opponents of common sense campaign finance rules, but it doesn't really hold water. True free expression means the voices of all Americans, not just the ultra-rich, are heard.

When wealthy special interests are able to use unlimited funds to influence elections, the First Amendment rights of everyday Americans, like those who voted to enact or against campaign finance limits, are threatened. Their voices are drowned out. Patrick says that when the Oregon State Supreme Court struck down these limits, the will of the voters was thwarted.

Llewellyn: This unusually placed Oregon in the position that despite Oregonians wanting contribution limits on political campaigns, they were unable to enact them statutorily because of this decision by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Leeper: Kate of Common Cause says Oregon consistently ranks among the worst states when it comes to campaign finance reform. In 2019, Oregon lawmakers received more money per capita from corporations than anywhere else in the nation, according to an investigation from the news outlet Oregon Live.

Titus: That creates a limit for who can run, and it results in government that is not reflective of the broad diversity of people, will tend to be more heavily weighted toward people who have some means or are connected to the people with means. The other way to think about it is whoever gets elected, once they're in office, how does it impact them to have a system that's so ruled by big money?

Leeper: But she says, the efforts to reestablish limits in Oregon continue. In 2020, voters passed a ballot initiative called Measure 107. It establishes the right of the government to set campaign contribution limits contrary to what the state Supreme Court ruled. The initiative gathered the support of a coalition of legislators, constituents, and organizations.

Titus: Once we got into the voters, it passed with 78% support, which is a phenomenally high level of support, especially for something that's a constitutional amendment.

Leeper: Measure 107 sets the constitutional framework for allowing campaign contribution limits. But what's needed next is legislation that actually establishes them. Here's Patrick.

Llewellyn: Measure 107 didn't set contribution limits itself. It simply permitted them. Actually establishing contribution limits has been a key focus of reform the past few years in Oregon.

Leeper: Kate is hopeful that this new law will force politicians to pay closer attention to the people that they want to be their constituents, instead of focusing on who can make the largest contributions to their campaigns.

Titus: I think most elected officials, they don't like to see themselves as being bought by the money. They say, "No, it's not. I'm not. I'm just making principled stands." But the reality is you can't help but be distracted by those large contributions. It's going to affect who you reach out to. The reality is the campaigns to get these officials elected very much focus on the big donors. That's how you raise the money. This fundraising time is spent calling the biggest donors, not going door-to-door or talking to everyday people at the coffee shop.

Leeper: We've been mentioning throughout the episode the goals of campaign finance regulation to diversify the pool of people who can afford to run for office, so it's not just wealthy or well-connected candidates, but candidates that are representative of a state's or municipality's population, to curb corruption of candidates who enrich themselves by running for office, to allow voters to know what special interests may be behind the policies that their elected officials are proposing.

And the flip side of that, to ensure that politicians are accountable to their voters and not to the donors making the biggest contributions to their campaigns. There are efficient solutions being put into place across the country that accomplish this, like public financing programs. Public financing options give smaller campaign donations, more influence in elections.

Llewellyn: A well-designed public financing program can amplify the voices of all citizens, and it provides a path to elected office for candidates who lack personal wealth or access to a network of wealthy supporters.

Leeper: Public financing refers to government programs that provide limited public funds to candidates for campaign expenses. To receive these public funds, candidates have to agree to certain restrictions like accepting only small dollar private contributions, limits on campaign spending, and the obligation to participate in public debates. These programs have successfully been implemented across many cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Denver to name a few.

And as for states, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, and Michigan all have public financing systems. Alisa says in her state of Illinois, advocates are very excited to learn from what these places are doing.

Kaplan: There are so many cities now that have public campaign financing programs or fair elections programs that can help offset the influence of big money on our elections and amplify the voices of people who have really been drowned out by the current system.

Leeper: These systems of public financing are proving to be incredibly successful in both combating corruption and improving voter turnout, and they date back to the '70s and '80s. A few years ago, Kate and Common Cause researched what public financing at the state level would look like in the state of Oregon.

It revealed the extent to which campaigning in Oregon favors wealth. Unlike candidates in other states who get hundreds or thousands of small contributions, sometimes just 10 or $20 from thousands of constituents, Oregon's elected officials typically receive contributions from just a few donors.

Titus: The researchers were shocked at how few donors most elected officials in Oregon have. It was strikingly small. It really was dozens of donors. In some cases, I think there was one legislator who really, it was like seven donors that were behind their ability to run.

Leeper: Public financing programs increase the number of people participating in a candidate's campaign by leveraging eligible residents' donations.

Titus: That's what really needs to change if we want elected officials to be able to be responsive really to their constituents and not to the wealthy donors.

Leeper: And better financing options can allow for a more varied set of candidates to begin with.

Kaplan: The idea that people could have an alternative to relying on big donations from wealthy individuals and from special interests, that could really help reduce the level of pay-to-play politics in Chicago and in the state as it has done in other areas, as well as amplifying the voices of everyday people who are really the people who need the most from our democracy, and yet right now have the least voice.

Leeper: Voters around the country for decades now have been advocating for a campaign finance structure that protects their voice in our democracy. Here's Trevor Potter.

Potter: The Oregon Initiative is a good example of citizens being able to take things into their own hands and allow for some form of limits. Whether it is wanting independent redistricting commissions or wanting limits on contributions, voters would like an honest, fairer system and will speak out when they have the opportunity to do so.

Leeper: Protecting the democratic process in order to get candidates elected whom voter support is one thing. What comes next? Holding elected officials accountable when they're in office is another. In our next episode, we take a look at local and state ethics commissions, why they're crucial for combating corruption, and what happens when the actions of our elected officials go unchecked.

Special thanks to Alisa Kaplan, Trevor Potter, Patrick Llewellyn, and Kate Titus for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with a full transcript of the show. Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at 

Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel on the redistricting team. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager, and Brendan Quinn, senior communications manager for Campaign Finance and Ethics. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco, and mixed by Tren Lightburn.

Democracy Decoded is a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at