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A False Sense of Reform 

Why the proposed campaign finance reform ordinance falls short

As a scholar of voting rights and constitutional law, I'm opposed to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors' proposed campaign finance reform ordinance that would restrict individual campaign donations to $1,500 for county offices. I generally support campaign finance reforms because most contemporary campaign funding undermines the very purpose of elections. However, these reforms must be carefully crafted to be effective. No one casts a ballot for the joy of checking a box; one checks a box because it means something. Elections can be a critical part of the democratic process, but only when they lead to meaningful participation and when that participation, in turn, dictates policy.

Campaign contribution limits can be one way of improving the electoral process, but the supervisors' proposed limit is too high to dramatically change the way county campaigns are funded and would only serve to undermine future attempts at reform.

While elections can be a critical part of the democratic process, elections can also be structured to make casting a ballot futile. Districts can be designed to limit the power of minority groups (called gerrymandering) and certain registration requirements can preclude select groups from voting. The way campaigns are funded can also exclude people from participation. Lawrence Lessig, a leading proponent of campaign finance reform, wrote in Atlantic Monthly that only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. This means that most do not participate in one of the first steps of the election process — often called the "money primary." The way campaigns are funded can mean elections fail to connect most people to their government.

One way to address this problem is through campaign finance reforms. For example, some states like Maine have instituted public funding of elections. Maine now has a legislature more representative of its population than most. Candidates for office in Maine are freed from spending time devising fundraising events, and they have an equal incentive to talk to all voters, regardless of a voter's ability to fund their campaign. At the local level, limits to campaign donations are the most common campaign reform; although Albuquerque, New Mexico, currently has publicly funded elections and Portland, Oregon, did until 2010.

Historically there were bans on corporations from donating to campaigns, as well as limits on total campaign expenditures. But in recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has been hostile to most types of campaign finance restrictions. However, candidate contribution limits are still allowed for fear of "quid pro quo corruption," loosely translated to "this for that." The idea is that this campaign contribution can translate into that political favor. When a fear of quid pro quo doesn't exist, the modern Supreme Court has typically ruled against limits on campaign contributions.

Unless the board of supervisors follows Albuquerque's lead with a public funding system (my first choice) it is left with contribution limits to candidates. For those living in Arcata and Eureka, this type of campaign funding system is familiar. Arcata has limited contributions since 1992, currently set at $190. Eureka caps donations at $500.

If the way campaigns are funded infringes on the basic principle of elections, then the funding process is as problematic as gerrymandering or restrictive registration requirements. There are immense benefits to low contribution limits. For one, it holds down the cost of elections. Arcata City Council candidates rarely spend more than $10,000 to reach voters; the cost of entry for potential candidates is widely accessible. A low limit also allows a higher portion of the population to donate the maximum and, in the end, a candidate is no more beholden to a wealthy person donating $190 than to a poor person donating $190. Ultimately, a low limit requires candidates to fundraise from more people, thus involving more people in the money primary.

This is not to say that all is rosy with contribution limits. Because a candidate cannot accept one $50,000 check (the approximate amount needed for a serious supervisors' campaign in Humboldt County) candidates must spend more time fundraising. While we may not like the idea of candidates spending time fundraising, if the fundraising consists of gathering multiple small donations, then fundraising and connecting with voters overlap. A more pressing concern is that limits on campaign contributions can impair non-wealthy candidates. A candidate of sufficient means can simply self-fund their campaign. (Limits on candidates spending their own money have been interpreted as unconstitutional because there is no risk of quid pro quo corruption). A supervisor candidate who can write a $50,000 check need not spend time fundraising, while the candidate that cannot needs to invest significant time gathering small contributions. Although it warrants mentioning that, historically, most self-funded candidates lose.

When we remember the point of elections — to involve the public in the governing process — then the benefits of contribution limits outweigh the negatives. Since the type of campaign reform the county can adopt without challenging Supreme Court precedent is limited, the main debates are publicly funded elections or the monetary level for a contribution cap. If the county goes with a contribution limit, the amount has to be lower than the $1,500 proposed.

The donation limit for Congress is $2,600; their districts include 700,000 people. Supervisor districts with approximately 30,000 people — and the D.A., sheriff, and coroner offices with 150,000 people — can get by with substantially lower limits. Much of the expense of a campaign in Humboldt County is campaign staff, production and distribution of literature, and buying advertisements. The more people in your district, the more literature to mail; the more people in your district, the more expensive the campaign. The other variable for campaign expense is the rate of advertising in your media market. The Humboldt County media market is one of the most affordable in the state. The Sonoma County ordinance limits donations to $2,500 but their population is close to 500,000 people (lots of mailers) and Sonoma County is part of San Francisco's media market, one of the most expensive in the country. (Kern County, with a media market more similar to Humboldt County's, caps donations at $500.) Campaigns are comparatively inexpensive in Humboldt County; if we want to get significant numbers of people involved in funding them, the contribution limits cannot approach Sonoma County's.

A contribution limit that's too high is nothing more than a false sense of campaign finance reform and is worse than no limit at all. Any limit — even one that is too high — will likely stop further reforms. In the future, if the previous cap failed to improve the electoral process, people will assume that contribution limits in general failed. Reform is important, but how that reform is done is even more important. The county needs to hear from the public regarding publicly funded elections and/or the appropriate contribution limit. Ultimately, the most important limits on public officials (who will again become candidates) shouldn't be donation limits, but the concerns of their constituents.

Ryan Emenaker is a professor of political science at College of the Redwoods. His research focuses on U.S. politics, constitutional law and American political development. He was also recently named CR's 'Best Professor' by North Coast Journal readers.

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