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DC has an opportunity to clean up its elections and restore public trust in District leaders with a ballot initiative, but some are arguing that a ban on corporate contributions to campaigns would just trigger super PACs. The evidence says otherwise. In states that have banned the same practice for decades, super PACs have not played any meaningful role.
Ballot Initiative 70 would ban business organizations from contributing to candidates for public office in the District of Columbia, including the widespread practice where multiple LLCs with the same owners make separate contributions. DC voters will have the chance to weigh in this fall if campaigners gather enough signatures in the next few weeks.
After yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling striking down a provision in Montana, several people asked whether Initiative 70 could fall as well. But the Montana rule applied to independent political expenditures, not direct contributions, and direct contributions are already illegal in 21 states and in federal campaigns. There’s no reason to believe a DC law like Initiative 70 would face any constitutional issues.
Another line of attack holds that banning direct contributions will just push corporations to use super PACs to influence DC elections. Jack Evans, an official with strong fundraising from corporations, has leveled this criticism, and today professional political operative Chuck Thies espoused it as well.
Super PACs are all the rage these days on the federal electoral scene. Corporations use them to channel unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates. But super PACs have not played any substantial role in local or state elections where direct corporate contributions have been illegal for many years. Instead, with the exception of one outlier, they have played no role at all.
A larger and more conservative neighbor, Pennsylvania, has had a statewide ban on corporate contributions for decades, long before Citizens United. This ban covers every state elected official from the governor down to lowliest state representative, but you would be hard pressed to find a single super PAC
contribution to expenditure on behalf of any state candidate.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, another state that has banned corporate contributions since long before Citizens United, you’ll find the same thing. Nothing. There is no evidence of a single super PAC
contributing to supporting a non-federal candidate.
The list goes on. North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado, and Iowa to name a few. All prohibit corporate contributions, but none have had any super PAC involvement with state candidates.
Wisconsin is the only outlier. There, anti-labor Republican Governor Scott Walker faced an ultimately unsuccessful recall effort in a battle that made—and at times dominated—national headlines as a fight between pro- and anti-worker forces. This highly charged and highly symbolic fight attracted the attention of super PACs.
But to call Wisconsin an outlier is an understatement given the charged and symbolic nature of the recall effort there. It is unlikely in the extreme that such a situation would replicate itself here in DC. The super PAC phenomenon created by Citizens United that has been limited to high-profile federal elections, not state or local contests. Even many, if not most federal candidates never come into contact with super PACs.
Politicians and pundits who cite this issue are doing little more than fear-mongering. Many benefit personally from the current status quo, because they have a fundraising advantage today thanks to corporate contributions or work for candidates who pay their salaries with such money.
These folks are not willing to seek help for their addiction to corporate cash or to help restore public trust in the District. The voters should pay them no heed.