Illustration by Dan Kirchoff
Illustration by Dan Kirchoff
Last week in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered yet another blow to laws that regulate the role that moneyed interests can play in elections by striking down a nearly 40-year-old ban on the total amount of combined contributions a single donor can give to candidates, party committees, and political action committees (PACs). Prior to the decision, there was a $123,200 cap on the aggregate amount of money a donor could contribute in an election cycle ($48,600 for candidates, $74,600 to parties and PACs).

In 2012, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) prohibited Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon from giving $1,776 to 27 conservative congressional candidates, which would exceed the aggregate cap. Following McCutcheon's successful challenge last week, there is still a limit on how much a donor can contribute to an individual candidate and parties per election ($2,600 for candidates and $5,000 to a political party), but the Supreme Court decision ensures that a single donor can contribute as much as $3.5 million divided up among candidates, parties and PACs.

The reaction from campaign finance reformers was swift.

"This ruling is bad for our democracy and everyday people. It advantages the wealthiest among us - those who give more than $123,200 in an election cycle," said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, in a prepared statement. "This is another blow to average Americans who increasingly feel shut out of elections and government thanks to the flood of big money let loose by this Court. From Citizens United to McCutcheon, the Court is moving campaign finance law in the wrong direction."

Here in Maine, Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne says the decision will likely impact the state's own $25,000 combined contribution limit.

"I think that the commissioner is going to have to re-examine that $25,000 combined limit for individuals," said Wayne. "And it may be that that law can no longer be enforced because of the McCutcheon decision."

However, Wayne noted that he was not aware of any donor ever meeting that limit, since the contribution limit to candidates is so low. The individual contribution limit for gubernatorial party candidates is $3,000, while party-affiliated legislative and county-wide candidates can receive up to $750. For any municipal candidate in a town or city below a population of 15,000, there is no limit, making one wonder how much it would cost to purchase a local city council or select board.
In recent years, Supreme Court rulings have had a substantial effect on Maine's campaign finance laws. A 2011 decision struck down the matching funds provision in Maine's Clean Election Act. Matching funds allowed clean election candidates in competitive races to receive additional public money to respond to attacks from outside groups. A number of Supreme Court decisions, including the controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling, allowed for unlimited "independent expenditures," ushering in, most notably, the notorious SuperPACs, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2012 campaign.

According to a 2013 report released by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, independent expenditures have dwarfed individual candidate spending in recent years. Between 2006 and 2010, the report states that independent expenditures for gubernatorial races increased by 650 percent, from $600,000 in 2006 to over $4 million in 2010. Between 2008 and 2012 legislative independent expenditures increased by 557 percent, from about $600,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2010 and $3.6 million in 2012. It's also virtually impossible to track the source of that money because the donors often divert their spending through various tax-exempt non-profit organizations that are not required, despite their tax-exempt status, to disclose the source of their funding. The report's authors analyzed campaign spending in the extremely contentious 2012 Senate District 32 race in Bangor, which reached $454,000 in mostly negative independent ads from both sides despite the fact that challenger Geoff Gratwick and former Sen. Nichi Farnham were both clean election candidates.

The researchers traced much of the independent expenditures to sources tied to billionaire business magnate George Soros on the Democratic side and the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers on the Republican side.

With the McCutcheon decision, in the name of free speech wealthy power brokers like Soros, the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires can divert more and more money away from SuperPACs and into the coffers of candidates, traditional PACs, and political parties. Their potential reach stretches all the way from the office of the president down to local select board and school board races.

As to why ever-increasing bundles of cash being funnelled to candidates and elections isn't considered bribery instead of free speech, the court's definition of corruption requires quid-pro-quo corruption. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the McCutcheon opinion while citing the Citizens United decision, "Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption."

Even if that's true, it's not hard to figure just how much ingratiaton and access an average voter's lone vote can buy.