Corporate spending has skyrocketed in Seattle’s elections in recent years, with corporations giving millions of dollars to independent expenditure committees that face no spending or fundraising limits. But Seattle City Council member Lorena Gonzalez might have a way to stop this influx of unaccountable spending.
Gonzalez sent an ordinance to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) that would heavily curtail the fundraising ability of independent expenditure committees, also known as super PACs, by limiting their donations to $5,000 per person or corporation. The law would also effectively block multinational corporations like Amazon from spending any money in Seattle elections by banning companies with foreign ownership from giving to independent expenditure committees.
The law isn’t expected to be introduced to the full city council until at least 2020, but if its rules were in place today, it would have profound effects on Seattle’s elections. The Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) political action committee (PAC), the most well-funded PAC in Seattle, has received 22 donations over $5,000 this year, worth a total of $708,640. Gonzalez's legislation would block all of those donations, which are currently funding canvassing efforts, mailers, polling, and other campaign work for the chamber’s Amazon-approved candidates.
The seven-member SEEC declined to officially endorse the proposal Tuesday night, with multiple members saying they support the aim of the proposal but want to do more work analyzing how Gonzalez’s legislation would hold up in court. Bruce Carter, an SEEC commissioner, said Tuesday that he was "personally offended" by the amount of independent expenditure spending in elections but wanted to do more legal research on Gonzalez's law.
"I think we should give [this legislation] additional attention and seek additional input from our legal community, because the important thing is, if we do go forward with this, we want the best possible case to win," Carter said.
If the city council passed the law, it would almost certainly be challenged in court, which may be the ultimate goal of the legislation. Gonzalez’s bill is heavily modeled on a draft law created by the nonprofit Free Speech for People. John Bonifaz, the president of the nonprofit, attended Tuesday’s SEEC meeting and told the commissioners that he believed the legislation would hold up in court and possibly overturn early court rulings. Bonifaz brought with him letters of support from multiple law school professors and a chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Two federal court cases—Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC—would likely weigh heavily in a court challenge to the legislation. In Citizens United, the US Supreme Court ruled, in 2010, that Congress had infringed on the First Amendment rights of corporations when they barred certain types of PAC spending. In SpeechNow.org, a lower federal court extended the Citizens United decision to include not only expenditures but also PAC contributions, effectively saying the government could not limit how much a donor gave to an independent expenditure PAC.
Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard University law professor, said in a letter to the SEEC that the proposed legislation would provide a strong case for the Supreme Court overruling the lower court’s Speechnow.org decision.
“Dollar limits on contributions to super PACs are constitutional under Supreme Court precedent,” Tribe said. “The US Supreme Court has upheld limits on contributions to political action committees in the past, did not address such limits in Citizens United, and has never created a special loophole or exception for super PACs.”
Hardeep Singh Rekhi, an SEEC commissioner, said Tuesday that he would support the city spending money defending the proposed legislation in court.
“There’s a concern about spending city resources on something like this knowing it’s going to get challenged. I’m less concerned about that,” Rekhi said. “Because… it would be protecting our democracy and our system here, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend taxpayer money than to protect elections.”
Gonzalez said, in a letter to the SEEC, that establishing contribution limits to independent expenditure PACs is necessary for protecting the city’s limits on donations directly to candidates. City law limits direct donations to $500, or $250 if the candidate is using Democracy Vouchers, the city’s new public financing program. But donors can evade this limit by maxing out individual contributions and then giving to an independent expenditure PAC that supports the same candidate.
“My proposed legislation… would impose reasonable limitations, like those that currently apply to people donating directly to candidate campaigns, therefore further leveling the playing field between those with significant financial means and those who rely solely on Democracy Vouchers,” Gonzalez said.