In early October, the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) joined Free Speech for People, the Indian Law Resource Center, American Sustainable Business Council and retired Justice James Nelson in submitting a “friend of the court” brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that Montana’s campaign contribution limits should be upheld against a challenge that they infringe on the “free speech” rights of wealthy political investors.
In Lair v. Motl, plaintiffs allege Montana’s campaign contribution limits are unconstitutionally low (they ranged from a low of $170 per individual up to $650 for the Governor’s race). The case, which was filed in September 2011, now is back before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals following a federal district court ruling striking down Montana’s limits.
So why does a business advocacy group care about protecting states’ ability to limit the power of political investors? AMIBA Co-director Jeff Milchen identifies the flow of subsidies and tax breaks to national or transnational corporations as a key factor undermining small business and believes insulating elected officials from the corrupting power of wealthy “donors” is key to changing the status quo. Milchen said, “Allowing corporations to readily translate economic power into political power is both bad for democracy and for independent businesses that must succeed through offering customers superior services and products, not buying political favor.”
We offer a few key excerpts from the amicus brief below. See the full brief (pdf) for full citations. The American Independent Business Alliance details why it considers election integrity a crucial issue for small business here.
Montana’s voters could reasonably conclude, in 1994 and now, that the state’s political contribution system tends to operate as an unofficial but exclusionary candidate selection process, influencing and filtering political choices before any votes are cast. Without appropriate limits, this system grants disproportionate selection power to a small subset of the electorate that is wealthier, whiter, older and more disproportionately male than the electorate as a whole. In fact, in Voting Rights Act cases finding abridgments of Native Americans’ voting rights in Montana, this court has highlighted as relevant that Native American voters are generally financially unable to make politically relevant campaign contributions.
While the Declaration [of Independence] is not itself binding law, the Constitution “is but the body and the letter of which the [Declaration] is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration.”
To the extent that the system requires candidates to rely on contributions . . . it tends to deny some voters the opportunity to vote for a candidate of their choosing; at the same time it gives the affluent the power to place on the ballot their own names or the names of persons they favor. Bullock v. Carter, (1972) (invalidating candidate filing fees ranging from $1,000 to $6,300).
Nationwide, campaign funding systems are dominated by demographically unrepresentative donor classes with unrepresentative policy preferences. In general, campaign funding contribution systems are dominated by the wealthy…People of color, young people, and women are significantly underrepresented among the donor class.
Poor voters are “substantially limited in their choice of candidates” by the fact that viable candidates need to either appeal to the wealthy or be wealthy themselves… As a practical matter, “the donor class effectively selects which candidates will be viable through large hard money contributions.”
Related Reading and Listening
Montana bucks U.S. ruling on corporate contributions (commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle by Jeff Milchen, AMIBA Co-founder). Milchen also has addressed corporate corruption of elections on many radio and TV programs, including Radio New Zealand (12 minutes) and Jefferson Public Radio (Oregon/California, 20 minutes).