How campaign finance laws benefit incumbents and insiders

Bill Maurer, an attorney who runs the Washington chapter of the Institute for Justice, has an excellent op-ed today in the News-Tribune of Tacoma, Washington. He details how Washington state’s absurdly-low contribution limits to recall campaign committees are hindering a grassroots effort to remove an elected official accused of wrongdoing.

Campaign finance laws thwart grass-roots recall efforts

According to self-proclaimed campaign finance “reformers,” the government-imposed restrictions on political speech and participation that they seek are supposed to improve democracy, give the “little guy” a voice and make politics less corrupt.

But the reality of what they achieve demonstrates something much more troubling: Incumbents are protected from challengers, significant barriers to grass-roots activism are erected, and political insiders rule the field and employ these laws to harass and silence newcomers on the political scene. Rather than promote good government, they are usually a barrier to it.

Indeed, right now Washington’s campaign finance laws are one of the principle obstacles in the effort to recall Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

A little background on the charges against Washam, courtesy of the state Supreme Court in its decision to allow the recall efforts against Washam to proceed:

Robin Farris filed six recall charges against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. She charges that Washam violated whistleblower protections, retaliated against his employees, grossly wasted public funds, failed to cooperate with discrimination and retaliation investigations, and violated his oath of office. Judge Felnagle found five of the charges sufficient…

Washam was incensed at the staff for not performing physical inspections under his predecessor. According to investigator Diane Hess Taylor, “[Washam] accused [employees] of fraud and not having integrity. He chastised employees for not quitting their jobs or blowing the whistle on then [Assessor-Treasurer] Ken Madsen…” Washam seemed particularly focused on one of the managers, Sally Barnes… Barnes filed an official equal employment opportunity complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation. The investigator noted that “[w]itness accounts were consistent that Barnes was singled out for negative treatment and ostracized by Washam by late February [2009] . . . . Washam reassigned Barnes from a supervisory and management role to a far inferior special project. Other employees filed their own equal employment opportunity complaints against Washam. Another independent investigator found that Washam had violated various Pierce County Code provisions protecting the confidentiality of people filing complaints, had retaliated against employees for protected conduct, and had identified and posted derogatory information about the complaining employees…

I’ve no idea whether these charges are accurate, or Washam should be recalled. That, of course, is for the voters of Pierce County to decide.

Or at least, it should be. Because of campaign finance laws, the recall effort is seriously hindered. As Maurer explains:

State law bars anyone from giving more than $800 to recall campaigns. This extremely low limit on the public’s political speech not only insulates incumbents from recalls, it also mutes the voices of those attempting to exercise their right of recall under Washington’s constitution.

The result is that grass-roots efforts to exercise control over the people’s representatives are hobbled from the very beginning.

To make matters worse, the contribution limit even applies to the free help that recall campaigns receive from experts such as lawyers. As a result, people like Farris face a Catch-22. Because the legal hurdles to recall efforts are high – they must convince a judge, and often the Washington Supreme Court, that the charges against the elected official are sufficiently serious – legal help is vital. But lawyers can be expensive for citizen activists.

Fortunately for Farris, lawyers from the well-regarded Tacoma firm of Oldfield & Helsdon PLLC were willing to donate their time to her for free.

Unfortunately for Farris, the unelected bureaucrats at the Public Disclosure Commission concluded that even free legal services are a “contribution” subject to the $800 limit, so accepting free help from Oldfield & Helsdon was against the law.

Like any campaign, recall campaigns cost money, so any limits on funding will limit how much a campaign can communicate with voters.

Maurer and the Institute for Justice are representing Farris and the attorneys at Oldfield & Helsdon in a challenge to the PDC, which you can read about at the IJ website: Farris et al. v. Seabrook et al.
Campaign Finance Laws versus Good Government

We at the Center have long maintained that campaign finance laws serve more often as a barrier to citizen participation in politics and a limit on the First Amendment than as any sort of impediment to political corruption, and this case is sadly just the latest example.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.