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As campaigns bring in more cash, transparency is even more vital

News-Miner opinion: When the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reconsider a three-judge panel’s decision striking down three of Alaska’s campaign contribution limits, it may have cleared the way for unlimited individual campaign contributions in next year’s elections.

What that means for Alaska is unknown, but increased amounts of money in elections without a mechanism to quickly identify its sources is problematic.

The court’s three-judge panel overturned a lower federal court ruling and reversed the appeals court in a case brought in 2015 by Republicans Jim Crawford, David Thompson and Aaron Downing, now deceased, against Heather Hebdon, who was executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission when the three plaintiffs challenged the state limits, claiming they violated the First Amendment.

The lawsuit claimed they would have given more to state and local candidates but were barred by a 1996 state law. In 2006, a ballot initiative further reduced and capped those limits.

A federal district court had upheld the state’s limits and the 9th Circuit concurred, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2010’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. ruling, allowed unlimited contributions to third-party groups that may run ads and campaign for candidates so long as they do not directly coordinate with the candidates or their campaigns. Given that, the high court vacated the 9th Circuit’s ruling upholding the state’s limits and remanded the case for reconsideration.

In July, the judicial panel in a 2-1 ruling tossed out as unconstitutional the state’s $500 per-year limit on the amount an Alaskan can contribute to a candidate; a $500 per-year limit on contributions to a political group; and, a $3,000 limit on the amount a candidate can accept in a given year from all out-of-state donors. The panel, however, upheld a $5,000 limit on the amount of money a political party can give a candidate.

The state of Alaska did not request an en banc, or full court, hearing by the 9th Circuit after the panel’s ruling despite entreaties by Democratic state senators, and the court on Oct. 27 declined to seat the entire court to reconsider the ruling. The court did, however, suggest the state might find limits that could pass constitutional muster, but it that would require action by the Legislature or a ballot initiative.

Whether almost limitless amounts of campaign contributions pouring into the political arena are deleterious to the body politic is a question that draws lightning and thunder from all corners of the argument. It is corruptive, some will assert. No, no, it is the embodiment of free speech, others say. In the end, it is the often less-than-instantaneous disclosure of the funding’s origins that is perhaps the most corrosive element.

It is inarguable that disclosure of how much is contributed to a campaign is vitally important for informed elections, but the origin of those contributions is even more so. That knowledge gives voters vital information they need to immediately evaluate and weigh competing interests and candidates. The way things are today in Alaska, it is not difficult to pour money into a campaign at the 11th hour and have the public remain relatively unaware of the funding’s source until after the dust has settled.

If we are to have limitless individual campaign contributions in our state and municipal elections, we must know where those contributions are coming from and that information must be available immediately if we are to ensure transparent elections.

In light of the 9th Circuit panel’s decision, lawmakers — no matter whether they set out to seek a magical campaign contribution ratio that could satisfy the courts — should weigh instituting some form of immediate campaign finance disclosure. Mind you, that well could require strengthening state law and regulations and ensuring APOC has the staff and resources necessary to do the job of almost immediately informing the public about who is getting what in contributions — and, as importantly, from where.

Perhaps lawmakers in January, during the next session, will take a giant step toward ensuring our elections remain open and fair.

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