The Significance of the Ninth Circuit’s Decision on Alaska’s Campaign Finance Laws

I want to flag a couple significant aspects to the important 2-1 Ninth Circuit decision in Thompson v. Hebdon that Derek blogged about here. The Alaska laws at issue had been adopted in 2006 through a ballot measure that passed with 73% support.

First, Alaska limited to $500 the amount individuals could contribute to state candidates. The court struck this down as unconstitutionally low, based on the earlier Supreme Court decision in Randall v. Sorrell. What’s of most interest here is that the Ninth Circuit relied heavily on the view that overly strict contribution limits interfere with the ability of challengers to compete effectively against incumbents. The Supreme Court had nodded to this idea in Randall, but the Ninth Circuit elaborates on this point at much greater length.

Second, Alaska capped at $3000 the total amount of money a candidate could receive from out-of-state donors. The Supreme Court has not directly addressed the constitutionality of constraints on out-of-state contributions to candidates for state office. The most significant justification for such constraints was that Alaska was seeking to ensure its legislators would be more responsive to constituents rather than out-of-state donors. The provision was thus defended as protecting democracy at the state level. The majority viewed the state as regulating to protect against the “undue influence” of out-of-state donors, and that such a purpose was forbidden by Supreme Court precedents holding it unconstitutional for states to act against “undue influence” of large donors by regulating election spending. I’m not sure those precedents, however, determine this issue. The dissent instead invoked the Bluman case, in which the DC Circuit upheld provisions in federal election law that prohibit foreign contributors in federal elections. Out-of-district or out-of-state contributions further nationalize elections, including for state office, which is part of why Alaska sought to protect its local democracy.

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