Alaska’s campaign finance laws must be enforced

Stock gavel / court

Alaska voters win. The Superior Court ruled in Patrick v. Interior Voters that the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) erred by failing to enforce the Alaska Campaign Finance Law without first obtaining guidance from the Alaska Courts. It is one of the strictest laws in the country, and we want it that way. The Legislature passed the law in 1996 in response to a voter initiative. It was weakened in 2003, but voters stepped up again and, by a 73% margin, said that in effect, we want the law to be strict: It protects our balance of power as voters and constituents. It limits the disproportionate influence and corrupting power of big money in our elections.

APOC stopped enforcing certain provisions of the law in 2012, after issuing an advisory opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Citizens United may have rendered those provisions unconstitutional. But it did not ask the court for a ruling on it, and it did not update its advisory opinion as the legal precedents interpreting the scope of Citizens United have accumulated. Judge William Morse found that the state has a legitimate interest in regulating campaign finances that may pass Constitutional muster; the Legislature charged APOC with enforcing the law, and it was an abuse of administrative discretion to decide on their own not to.

For the past eight years, APOC has allowed huge contributions to Alaska political action groups. Just look at the data: Between the 2008 and 2018 elections, unregulated independent expenditures increased from 3% to 36% of campaign spending, and two-thirds of this new money was from Outside donors. This is an issue for Alaskans across the political spectrum, conservatives and liberals alike. Big union contributions are just as problematic as Big Oil or Koch contributions.

No, the case is not over: It will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, and may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Thompson v. Hebdon decision on which Judge Morse relied is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. But we are not waiting. Citizen activists across the state are working hard to reclaim our democracy.

Besides the plaintiffs in these cases that are seeking to defend Alaska’s campaign finance law, Alaskans for Better Elections are advancing a ballot initiative that would require more disclosure in real time of the sources of Outside dark money to independent expenditure groups; instituting a single, open primary that gives equal voice to nonpartisan voters; and ranked choice voting that gives us the opportunity to rank order vote for up to three candidates, thereby allowing us to support our first choice candidate without “throwing away” our opportunity to cast a deciding vote between the two finalists. Ranked-choice voting increases voter turnout, creates more opportunity for independent and third-party candidates, promotes civility in the campaigns and ensures that the winner has more than 50% of the final vote.

Alaska Move to Amend is building support for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing legal authority for federal, state and local governments to regulate campaign finances. Specifically, the We the People Amendment provides:

  • “The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment.”
  • “The rights protected by the Constitution… are the rights of natural persons only. Artificial entities… are subject to regulation… through federal, state or local law.”

The full text of the amendment may be read online at Move to Amend’s website. And Wolfpac Alaska is seeking a Free and Fair Elections Amendment to the U.S. Constitution through state action to convene a limited Constitutional Convention under Article V.

We want your help on all these fronts. The state of our democracy depends on you. Come get involved!

Sharman Haley, an economist and retired professor of economics and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is a member of Move to Amend, which seeks a constitutional amendment to clarify that only individuals, not corporations, have constitutional rights.

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