Dunleavy: Democracy Distorted
Out-of-state donations to state and local campaigns threaten democracy and federalism.
Out-of-state donations to state and local campaigns are growing out of control. In 2022, 64.8% of donations to Senate races and 43.5% of House races were from out-of-state. In N.H. Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan’s Senate campaign, 87.91% of the donations were from out-of-state. In other words, only 12.09% of Maggie Hassan’s funds were from her constituents. In 2022, the Republican Arizona Secretary of State nominee, Mark Finchem, received 55% of his funding from out-of-state donors. Last year, New York billionaire Micheal Bloomberg donated almost $29 million to support a California ballot measure on flavored tobacco products. In the 2022 East Baton Rouge Parish School Board elections, out-of-state donations and outside spending accounted for $1.9 million of the $2.4 million spent financing nine school board races, or around 80% of the total expenditures. The resulting out-of-state influence on state and local elections is an unacceptable disruption to democracy and federalism.
The increase in out-of-state donations and campaign contributions followed Supreme Court decisions that ruled virtually unlimited campaign spending is speech protected by the First Amendment. In 2010, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that campaign finance laws restricting independent expenditures to political campaigns are unconstitutional. The decision empowered corporations to spend unlimited funds on campaigns. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in 2014 ruled that placing a cap on campaign contributions by a single individual is unconstitutional, allowing wealthy individuals to pour money into changing the outcome of elections.
Corporations and PACs are unequivocally not people and should not be protected by the Constitution. Arguing otherwise undermines the founding principles of American democracy — a government for the people, by the people. To quote former Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, wrote that the Court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation” and “a democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
Non-residents’ concerns about state elections are understandable, but those concerns are insufficient justification for these democracy-destabilizing donations. It’s true that a state’s members of Congress influence federal policies nationwide. It’s also true that state policies can have spillover effects beyond that state’s borders. For example, a state’s firearm and reproductive health policies affect gun violence and reproductive healthcare access in neighboring states. However, the effect of state elections on out-of-state parties still does not justify large out-of-state donations.
Take, for example, a hypothetical campaign donation from outside the country. Even though U.S. policies and election outcomes significantly affect the international community, Americans view foreign donations as interference. Such donations are fully illegal under federal law. Countries view foreign donations as violations of their sovereignty and democracy — yet Americans treat out-of-state donations as a regular part of American elections instead of as a violation of their state’s sovereignty and democracy.
Additionally, out-of-state donations disrupt the balance between the federal and state governments. Federalism dictates a partnership between state and federal governments, and manipulated state election outcomes disturb that balance. Extreme polarization leads to an outsized incentive for large donations to close races that may flip a seat and increase the donor’s preferred party’s power in Congress. The goal is clearly to influence the balance of power in the federal government to achieve nationwide policy goals. However, these out-of-state donations also nationalize state and local elections, wreaking havoc on federalism’s goal of balancing state and federal needs. In addition to the consequence of neglecting state and regional problems, donations centering on national concerns incentivize highly polarized campaigns that may not represent the views of their constituents.
These donations pressure candidates to cater their policy promises to out-of-state interests. Super PACs and online donation platforms like ActBlue, SwingLeft and WinRed facilitate large out-of-state donations. These platforms consolidate donations to support specific agendas, policies and ideologies. Receiving these donations behold politicians to out-of-state interests, and politicians may grow to rely on these strings-attached donations for their reelection campaigns.
Consequently, out-of-state donations undermine democracy and violate state residents’ right to have representatives that reflect their state’s challenges and needs. In the 2022 midterms, 156 congressional races received more out-of-state donations than donations from their constituents. This ratio leads to campaigns prioritizing national concerns rather than proposing solutions for state and local ones. Wealthy interests and states, thus, can capture the representatives of poorer states, leading to continued prioritization of policies that benefit the wealthy over improving the lives of the working and middle classes.
The United States needs an overhaul of campaign finance regulations. Only four states – Alaska, Hawai’i, Oregon and Vermont — have made efforts to limit out-of-state campaign contributions, and only Hawai'i regulations have successfully survived legal challenges. In local politics, voters in the city of Akron, Ohio passed a ballot initiative in 1998 to limit out-of-state contributions for local elections — but a U.S. District Court ruled the measure unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment. Similar legal challenges have plagued reforms, blocking states and localities from regulating out-of-state donations. Courts must reassess claims that limiting out-of-state donations does not constitute a government goal significant enough to override Citizens United’s bastardized conceptualization of freedom of speech.
The rising tide of out-of-state donations undermines the bedrock of American democracy, distorting the democratic process and corroding the core tenet of representation. Should courts and legislatures continue to neglect the fundamental principle that elected officials are bound to serve their constituents, politicians and officials must adopt a principled stance against out-of-state contributions. Prioritizing the interests of constituents over external donors is a necessary step to reassert the principles of representative democracy and rejuvenate the integrity of our electoral system.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.