By Jennifer Ahearn
November 23, 2016

Some good news from Election Day: voters in red and blue states across the country took action to reduce the influence of money in politics and improve accountability in their own backyards.

state + local (1)

On money and politics generally, California and Washington state, along with 18 cities and counties in Wisconsin and two municipalities in Ohio, passed resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

As to state and local improvements, the most sweeping change came in South Dakota, where voters approved Initiated Measure 22. The measure includes a major overhaul of the state’s campaign finance system, including new contribution limits, disclosure rules, and reporting requirements. The measure lowers contribution limits to political action committees, parties, and candidates for statewide, legislative, or county offices, and limits contributions from candidate campaign committees, political action committees, and political parties. (The limits vary depending on the office sought.) The measure also creates a publicly funded campaign finance program for statewide and legislative candidates who opt to agree to additional limits on campaign contributions and expenditures. Under the program, two $50 credits are issued to each registered voter, who assigns them to participating candidates; the candidates then redeem the vouchers to receive the funds. The measure also creates an appointed ethics commission to administer the credit program and to enforce campaign finance and lobbying laws, including new reporting requirements. Finally, the measure prohibits certain state officials and high-level employees from lobbying until two years after leaving state government. The measure passed with approximately 52% of the vote.

A variety of other measures were on the ballot in state and local elections elsewhere. Here’s a rundown of what happened:

Campaign contribution limits

Missouri

In 1994, Missouri voters enacted campaign contribution limits by proposition; in 2008, the state legislature repealed those rules. Amendment 2, passed this year, was designed to avoid a similar outcome by enshrining limits in the state’s constitution. The limits apply to state and judicial elections, specifically to candidates, committees, and political parties participating in them. The candidate donation cap is $2,600 from any one individual, other than the candidate himself or herself, per election, and the political party cap is $25,000 from any one individual or committee per election; the limits are to be adjusted every four years for inflation. Corporations and labor unions may not make direct contributions, although they can still contribute via continuing committees. The amendment prohibits candidate committees from contributing to each other, and prohibits candidates from accepting funds from out-of-state committees unless the committee registers in the state. It also bans committees and parties from accepting contributions from non-citizens, foreign governments, and foreign corporations that are not permitted to do business in the state. Contributions under $25 can be anonymous. Amendment 2 was approved with approximately 70% of the vote.

State legislator ethics

Rhode Island

Ballot Measure 2, which was referred to voters by the state legislature, amended the Rhode Island Constitution to permit the state’s ethics commission to have jurisdiction over state legislators’ core legislative activities.  Previously, Rhode Island courts prevented the ethics commission from prosecuting legislators for “legislative actions,” such as debating legislation, even if, for example, they had a conflict of interest in the legislation, holding that such activities were immunized by the state constitution’s speech and debate clause. The measure was approved with approximately 78% of the vote.  

Small-donor financing

Howard County, Maryland

Question A amends the County Charter to authorize the creation of a matching fund for candidates who opt-in to the program and forego large outside contributions. With the authorization, the County Council will create the program, planned to be in effect for the 2022 elections. (Neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland has a similar program in the works, which is planned to take effect in 2018.) The measure passed with approximately 52% of the vote.

Berkeley, California

Amendment X1 creates a fund to be paid to candidates for mayor or city council who choose to only accept individual contributions of $50 or less and who collect at least 30 contributions of between $10 and $50 from city residents. The measure passed with approximately 64% of the vote.

Lobbying + ethics

San Francisco

Proposition T increases lobbying disclosures by requiring registered lobbyists to identify the agencies they have attempted, will attempt, or may attempt to influence. Regarding gifts, it prohibits lobbyists from giving any gifts, including travel, to any City officer or an officer’s family member, but 501(c)(3) non-profits may provide food or refreshment up to $25 per person for all attendees at a public event. Lobbyists may not contribute to any elected official, candidate for office, or their candidate-controlled committee if the lobbyist is registered to lobby the official’s or candidate’s agency. The proposition passed with approximately 87% of the vote.

Limits on campaign contributions and independent expenditures

Multnomah County (Portland), Oregon

Measure 26-184 creates new caps on donations to candidates and candidate committees. The new cap limits donations to $500 from an individual or political committee per election cycle. The law also creates a new category of group, Small Donor Committees, which may accept contributions only in amounts of $100 or less per individual per calendar year but which may contribute unlimited amounts to candidates and engage in unlimited independent expenditures. The measure also requires any entity that spends more than $750 per election cycle on independent expenditures to register as a political committee, which triggers donor and expenditure reporting requirements. Separately, the measure caps independent expenditures at $5,000 per individual per election cycle, and $10,000 per political committee. The new limits are to be adjusted every other year for inflation.  

The measure also requires political advertisements to disclose the five largest sources of funds,  sets civil penalties at between two and twenty times the amount of the violation, and authorizes the use of payroll deductions for making contributions. The measure passed with approximately 88% of the vote, although a court challenge is expected.