WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider taking another step toward dismantling campaign finance restrictions, potentially freeing wealthy donors to give as much as they want in any election cycle and raising the possibility that it could overturn limits that apply to individual candidates, as well.
In its landmark Citizens United decision, the court ruled in 2010 that corporations, unions and individuals could spend unlimited sums on campaign ads as long as they are independent of the candidates and political parties. That triggered the creation of political action committees known as SuperPACs.
Tuesday, the court moved to a different arena – that of limits on how much can be contributed by individuals directly to candidates and parties. Fearing the undue influence of very wealthy donors, Congress in the Watergate era set a limit on the total amount that an individual could donate in one election cycle. This limit has been upheld by the courts.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from an Alabama donor and the Republican National Committee contending that the total contribution limit of $123,200 per election cycle is “unconstitutionally low.”
Some observers said the court could go further and re-examine a 1976 decision to uphold limits on donations per candidate. In current law, individuals may give no more than $2,500 to a federal candidate, up to $30,800 per year to the national political committees and $10,000 to state parties.
“We’re now witnessing the demolition of our campaign finance laws, brick by brick,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University. He said the limit on total contributions is particularly vulnerable to attack. SuperPACs have already created an avenue for wealthy donors to give unlimited amounts to independent political action committees.
By striking down the limit on total donations to candidates and parties, the court would be giving individuals the option of donating money to a party to be spread among its candidates, rather than to a SuperPAC.