Don’t limit free speech with campaign contribution limits

August 26, 2019   •  By Luke Wachob   •    •  

This piece originally appeared in The Oregonian  on August 22, 2019.


Successful political campaigns have simple ingredients: a message voters believe in, a candidate they can trust, and enough resources to get the word out by Election Day. A constitutional amendment to restrict campaign giving would throttle candidates just when they need to ramp up.

Oregon is one of 11 states in the nation without limits on the amounts individuals may give to candidates.On the other end of the spectrum, some states cap contributions at just a few hundred dollars, practically strangling new candidates from the moment they enter the race.

Oregon’s hands-off approach creates fertile ground for democracy. Candidates who lack party connections, name recognition, or personal wealth can fundraise to compete with their established, well-connected, and often wealthy opponents. It’s no coincidence that the nation’s first transgender state legislator was elected in Virginia, another state that doesn’t cap donations. States with low limits force candidates to operate on shoestring budgets. That gives a major advantage to those with a leg up in other walks of life.

Incumbents have a huge head start in name recognition thanks to previous campaigns and years of “free” media coverage. Celebrities and prominent individuals also have less need for fundraising than an unknown. And a wealthy businessman or woman running for office can chip in his own funds to help his campaign.

Meanwhile, newcomers suffer when contribution limits are low. Historically and in present day, political movements succeed when government gets out of the way and Americans organize and support who they want. A generation ago, when there were no limits on presidential campaigns, it was Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run that raised millions from a handful of donors to rally Vietnam War protesters and push Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Today, it is national criminal justice reform organizations supporting a new generation of prosecutors in places like Northern Virginia. The freedom to support candidates is the freedom to advocate for change.

Knee-jerk political analysis sees contribution limits as a straightforward measure to reduce corruption. Yet there is no correlation between a state’s contribution limits and public corruption. Politicians just have too many other ways of abusing their power. Instead, limits make it harder for campaigns to get off the ground and get their message out.

Even an enormous donation cannot buy an election. Oregon proved that last year, when Nike co-founder Phil Knight donated $2.5 million to Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler. Gov. Kate Brown won re-election anyway, pulling in over 100,000 more voters than Buehler. Supporters of contribution limits use the Knight donations as a rallying cry, but they really demonstrate that limits aren’t necessary. In fact, they suggest that limits might backfire.

What if Oregon imposed limits, and a multibillionaire like Knight jumped in the race himself? He could spend his millions freely while his opponents, unlike Gov. Brown in 2018, would face a hard cap every time a supporter wanted to contribute. Gov. Brown may not have received seven-figure contributions from an individual like Knight, but she received plenty of five and six-figure contributions that would likely be illegal under any limits the Legislative Assembly may pass.

The proposed constitutional amendment contains other threats to free speech, too. It calls for state and local governments to be able to limit contributions and expenditures that “influence the outcome of any election….” The vague term “influence” could be easily exploited to restrict speech regulators don’t like. After all, who gets to decide what actions “influence” the outcome of an election?

Oregon should be proud of the freedom it has and the democracy that freedom helps invigorate. Money in politics may elicit groans, but that’s a heck of a lot better than letting government stifle political change and limit political speech. Oregon should remain a leader in free speech, not fall back to the pack.

Luke Wachob

Luke Wachob