Voters Move Toward a More Accountable and Transparent Oregon

Wide shot of the state capitol building surrounded by green trees and lit with the morning sunlight.
The state capitol building in Salem, Oregon. Photo by 4kodiak

Oregon voters have spoken and have made it resoundingly clear that their state government is not for sale. Specifically, Oregonians approved Measure 107, which amends the state’s constitution to explicitly allow contribution limits for state and local elections.

Supporters of Measure 107 succeeded in breaking gridlock thanks to the public commitment and follow through of the governor, bipartisan legislative support, and efforts by a broad coalition of civil society groups and grassroots activists.

By passing Measure 107 and ensuring that contribution limits can be enacted, Oregon can now take an important first step toward making its elected officials accountable to all voters and not just wealthy special interests.

But safeguarding our democracy requires more than contribution limits, and there are meaningful reforms that are part of a comprehensive blueprint for an accountable and transparent government.

As the Supreme Court explained decades ago in Buckley v. Valeo, the ultimate effect of contribution limits is to require candidates to “raise funds from a greater number persons” rather than relying on a smaller number of wealthy contributors.

This furthers the public’s interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption “inherent in a system permitting unlimiting financial contributions.”

Contribution limits accordingly have been a key feature of campaign finance laws at the federal, state, and local level across the country. Unfortunately, in 1997, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution did not permit contribution limits, effectively barring their implementation across the state.

While the Oregon Supreme Court reversed this longstanding precedent this past spring, passing Measure 107 prevents future state courts from rolling back the availability of contribution limits.

Enacting meaningful contribution limits statewide is a necessary and long overdue first step toward creating a campaign finance system that works for everyone in Oregon, not just the wealthy. Measure 107 is thus a critical part of that process. Here are four more policies Oregon should implement to make its campaign finance system more accountable and transparent:

First, to ensure that any contribution limits put in place are not routinely evaded, strong anti-coordination rules are necessary. As the Supreme Court has recognized, expenditures made after a “wink or nod” can be “as useful to the candidate as cash.”

Effective anti-coordination measures should take a holistic approach to evaluating a thorough range of coordinating conduct between candidates and outside spenders, as well as the content of a particular expenditure in defining coordination. 

As one example, California includes in its coordination rules the common-sense acknowledgment that when a candidate fundraises for another group, subsequent spending by that group in support of the same candidate should be considered coordinated spending.

Second, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, more than $1 billion dollars of dark money has been spent to influence our elections. Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money in elections.

Although entities directly spending money to influence elections are typically required to identify themselves, wealthy special interests often avoid disclosure by funneling their money through shell groups. True transparency requires the disclosure of the original sources of money for big spending in Oregon elections.          

Third, Oregon elections must be safeguarded against foreign interference. While federal law already protects against some actions by foreign interests in state and local elections, federal law fails to properly account for the risks posed by foreign-influenced corporations and does not apply to ballot measure elections, both of which can be corrected at the state and local level.

Fourth, transparency laws must be updated for the twenty-first century and require meaningful disclosure for digital campaign advertising. While Oregon already places at least some requirements on digital ads, ensuring parity between digital and traditional media includes, among other things, creating a mandatory public archive for digital political ads.

Because ads placed online are unique in that they are often only viewable by a targeted audience, special interest groups create “dark ads,” advertisements that can go entirely undetected because of the way that they’re targeted.

Having a public archive is therefore crucial for both candidates and constituents so they can either respond to citizen concerns or make informed choices, respectively.

Oregon now stands at the precipice of a new era of accountable governance and transparent elections, adopting these reforms along with contribution limits will help it to get there.

Patrick is CLC's Director, State Campaign Finance.