Alaska’s unique election year includes uncertainty over campaign contribution limits

Volunteers and organizers from the Alaska Civic Engagement State Table gather on Election Day 2020 in Mountain View to remind residents to vote. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Compared to most other states, Alaska historically had lower limits on how much an individual could donate to a political candidate’s campaign. That changed last summer when a federal appeals court threw out the state’s limit of $500 per person per year, saying it limited free speech.

A recommendation from staff at the state’s campaign finance oversight agency, the Alaska Public Offices Commission, raised the limit to $1,500.

But according to a recent story in the Anchorage Daily Newsit remains unclear whether APOC commissioners will raise or lower the limit, whether the legislature will intervene or even who has the legal authority to make such changes.

As DNA journalist Nat Herz explains, despite the uncertainty, concern remains about the influence of money in politics.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Nat Herz: A set of Alaska boundaries came right after the VECO scandal where we saw lawmakers accepting bribes in exchange for official favors, essentially, while working in the Legislative Assembly. And, you know, it’s kind of a commonly understood problem and concern that if you allow individual donors to give outsized amounts of money to candidates’ campaigns, then those candidates will be beholden to their donors when they’re elected and will do special things for those who are not in the greater public interest. So that takes us back to about six years ago, when a lawsuit was filed, which led us to this very important decision that was handed down by a federal appeals court over the summer.

Casey’s Grove: So on the other hand, you have people arguing, including in this lawsuit that ended in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that this money is essentially people’s right to freedom of expression, or that it’s a question of freedom of expression, isn’t it? ? Can you explain that?

NH: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends on who you are and your political philosophy. Certainly your right to express yourself is, I think, unquestioned that it is a right that you have under the First Amendment of the Constitution. The flip side is that there’s this equation of giving money to a political candidate, or giving money to another campaign that’s pushing a candidate or a cause that is, in effect, the equivalent of free speech, and that’s basically what the federal courts have decided. About 10 years ago there was a series of Supreme Court decisions that somewhat relaxed the restrictions. The most important thing was this decision, Citizens United, which allowed donors, including unions and businesses, to give unlimited amounts to these entities called Super PACs or Independent Spending Groups – they do not coordinate with candidates . And according to the Supreme Court’s position and its landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, the fact that these groups cannot formally communicate with candidates and strategize with them is a way to avoid the actual appearance or occurrence of what is called “quid pro quo corruption”, which is in a way the exchange of campaign contributions against an official action.

CG: But in the story that you wrote, with Iris Samuels at DNA, there’s another view that relaxing those laws or raising the limit or completely getting rid of a limit for individual contributions brings that relationship back to being between the actual grantor making a donation and the candidate, right?

NH: I think it’s a very legitimate point from Robin Brena that, look, basically, under Citizens United, the Supreme Court of the United States permanently enshrined the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations and the rights of unions to give as much money to these super PACs and independent groups to spend as they wish, while maintaining fairly restrictive limits on donations to individual candidates and party-type PAC types. And that money flows into those campaigns that then kind of become irresponsible to the candidate themselves and can really be those kind of pirate ships floating out there in the political arena where they’re not really accountable to anybody. Robin’s argument is that if we want so much money flowing into the political system, then it’s much better that that money flow into candidates’ campaigns so that at least when we see those campaigns unfolding and we will see questionable or blatant questions or anything else declared, argued or announced by the campaigns, at least there is someone – namely the candidate – who is actually responsible for the things said.

CG: And we’re in this position now where the Alaska Commission on Public Offices has made a recommendation on what they think the line should be, but it’s up to the legislature to set the line.

NH: Yeah, well, there’s just a big question around who has what authority to do what here. I mean, certainly the staff at the campaign finance agency, the Alaska Public Offices Commission, thought they had the authority to set some sort of interim limits until the legislature acts. Robin Brena, who was plaintiffs’ counsel in the lawsuit that overturned the boundaries, he doesn’t believe the commission has that power. And in fact, the commission commissioners, who have the final say on this preliminary staff decision, haven’t actually approved the new limits proposed by commission staff – a $1,500 limit for candidate donations. and $3,000 for donations to political action committees. The Legislature also has proposals sort of in the hopper, but a lot of questions and skepticism as to whether they will go very far because you have both committees that have jurisdiction over this issue – one in the House, one in the Senate . The leaders and chairs of these committees really have quite different opinions on how the state should go about it – one is a Democrat, the other is a Republican. And then I think there will also be continued questioning about the limits set by anyone, even if they are higher than the old ones. And I think depending on where the boundaries are set, you can see an ongoing legal challenge.

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