Once again, a voter-initiated reform effort is under attack. Seventy percent of Missouri voters in last November’s general election approved the Missouri Campaign Contribution Reform Initiative, a state constitutional amendment establishing reasonable limits for candidate and state party donations. Before the new limits took effect, Missouri was one of only six states to allow unlimited candidate contributions from all sources (as of the 2015-2016 election cycle).
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that two weeks after a federal judge cast doubt on the future of Missouri's new campaign finance law, an opinion issued by the Missouri Ethics Commission removed the contribution limits, after voters overwhelmingly supported caps to individual candidates for office at $2,600 per election.
In March, a federal district court judge held a hearing on the merits of the voter-approved Amendment 2, which reinstated contribution limits and adopted other campaign finance reforms designed to prevent the circumvention of such limits. The court heard arguments from the state, which is defending the ballot initiative, and the plaintiffs in two consolidated cases – a coalition of state committees, industry groups and campaign donors that want to give and accept political contributions without limit, including the Free and Fair Election Fund and the Association of Missouri Electrical Cooperatives.
Base contribution limits are generally considered an uncontroversial measure to block one of the most obvious avenues for corruption: large campaign contributions going directly from an individual to a candidate. For over 40 years, the Supreme Court has recognized that such limits on direct contributions to candidates are a constitutional means of preventing real corruption and its appearance. Missouri’s new $2,600 limit on what a donor can give to a state candidate serves that well-settled anticorruption interest and is in line with comparable limits in most states.
But these plaintiffs are arguing that the entire reform initiative should be thrown out. They are even challenging the base limits – despite the longstanding consensus that base contribution limits are constitutional – by attempting to characterize them, incorrectly, as “aggregate” limits.
Aggregate limits establish an overall ceiling for much how much a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees in an election cycle – a type of limit that was successfully challenged in McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), which struck down the federal aggregate caps.
But McCutcheon also distinguished these aggregate caps from the federal base limits, affirming that the latter directly prevents political quid pro quos and their appearance. Indeed, in the eyes of the Court, it was the base limits that rendered the aggregate limits superfluous—and hence, unjustified under the First Amendment. The challengers in Missouri thus distort the law when they attempt to conflate aggregate limits with base limits.
Americans broadly agree that we need a campaign finance system that will reduce the burdens of modern fundraising, enable a broader diversity of candidates to run and win, and encourage everyday citizens to participate in democracy. Reforms like Missouri’s are a step in that direction.
In a 2015 Bloomberg Politics national poll, respondents overwhelmingly indicated “deep suspicion of a campaign finance system seen as giving outsize influence to the wealthy.” 87 percent agreed “the system should be reformed so that a rich person doesn’t have more influence than a person without money.” This suggests that Missouri voters are not alone in believing that courts should uphold reasonable contribution limits – and reject the argument that the First Amendment is a categorical barrier to all reform.
The cost of winning elections has never been higher, so it’s not surprising that Missouri voters acted to limit the most immediate risks posed by a system that allowed unchecked direct contributions to candidates. Amendment 2 empowers regular voters – who can’t afford to write big campaign checks – by signaling to them that they have the ability to participate in the process of elections and policymaking.
Big donors may not always be able to buy votes to secure their preferred policies. But if Missouri is unable to preserve even voter-approved base contribution limits, they can certainly buy a seat at the table with policymakers – and that’s a privilege the vast majority of Missourians wouldn’t share.