News-Miner opinion: A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out three of Alaska’s campaign contribution limits as unconstitutional. That should be a wake-up call for the Legislature.
The decision in the case brought by Republicans Jim Crawford, David Thompson and Aaron Downing, now deceased, has thrown open the door on individual campaign contributions in Alaska.
The panel upheld Alaska’s $5,000 ceiling on political party contributions to a candidate, but dumped the state’s $500 per-year limit on the amount an Alaskan can give a particular candidate, along with the state’s $500 per-year limit on donations to a political group. It also killed Alaska’s $3,000 limit on contributions a candidate can accept in a given year from all out-of-state donors combined. Those limits had been put in place by Ballot Measure 1, a 2006 measure overwhelmingly adopted by voters.
The case, Thompson v. Hebdon, dates to 2015. Hebdon was executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission when the three plaintiffs sued, claiming they would have given more to political candidates at the state and local level, but were limited by Alaska’s rules.
A federal judge in 2016 ruled for the state, and an appeals court panel agreed, except on the nonresident limit. The U.S. Supreme Court later sent the matter back to the appeals court to re-evaluate the $500 caps in light of an earlier ruling in a Vermont case.
The case still could be appealed to the full 9th Circuit, and then perhaps to the Supreme Court, but as of now, it appears Alaskans — and anybody else — can donate unlimited amounts directly to state and local political campaigns of their choice.
The nation’s high court in its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision equated campaign contributions to political free speech protected by the First Amendment and allowed unlimited contributions to third-party, independent groups barred from coordinating with campaigns.
While there are various schools of thought on how corruptive campaign contributions can be in politics, there can be no doubt secrecy is more corrosive. While knowing how much money is given to a candidate or group is important, knowing who is giving that contribution is even more important — and necessary — to ensure informed elections. It is far too easy to inject money into campaigns, even in their waning days and hours, with the public sometimes unaware of the contributions or their sources for days or weeks.
In light of the 9th Circuit panel’s decision allowing unlimited individual contributions in state and local elections, the Legislature should consider instituting total and immediate campaign financial disclosure so voters can determine who is donating in a timely fashion. That would require rejiggering the law and beefing up APOC.
Lawmakers also could cut off campaign contributions a week before an election to head off any untoward, last-minute largesse by contributors.
Given the Legislature is facing the monumental task of crafting a fiscal plan and deciding what to do with the Permanent Fund dividend during its upcoming special session, it is unlikely lawmakers will have the time to take on the campaign donation issue until perhaps sometime in January.
Nonetheless, the court’s ruling should put ensuring open, honest and fair elections at the top of lawmakers’ to-do list.