The Ohio Legislature was called back into special session by the Governor to complete work on campaign finance reform. The election process in Ohio has been beset with anonymous contributions, hidden money, and serious accusations of campaign finance abuse. The legislature can and should act quickly to make Ohio's election law a model for other states to follow.
Unfortunately, the current proposal being considered by the legislature is far from a "model" plan, and has the potential to turn Ohio into a state where campaign contributors, and not legislators, are really in charge.
The current legislation contains some important provisions. It eliminates some of the loopholes used by local parties to funnel campaign donations to specific candidates, and provides for broad-based disclosure by groups, candidates, and parties engaged in election activity. In fact, as my colleague Edward Foley noted here, the Ohio disclosure provisions are so broad, some of them may raise constitutional concerns.
The current proposal, under the cover of reform, also contains provisions that are worrisome. The proposal raises the amount a person can give to a candidate from $2,500 to $10,000. This is a 400 percent increase and is 500 percent more than the federal limit of $2,000. Limits this high in regional state elections have a strong potential to corrupt the electoral process, or at the very least, raise the appearance of corruption.
Races for the state legislature do not, and should not, cost millions of dollars. With contribution limits of $10,000 a candidate running for office could fund his or her entire campaign with the contributions of a few wealthy donors or PACs. These wealthy donors would then have more influence in the political process and further leave the average citizen out in the cold. It is because of the serious corrupting potential of large contributions that the United States Supreme Court has upheld federal contribution limits of $2,000.
In addition to significantly expanding the amount a person can give to a political candidate, the current legislation also significantly expands the role corporations and labor unions can play in state elections. Under current law, corporations and labor unions are generally prohibited from spending funds to aid or oppose a political party or candidate. These restrictions are fairly broad, and, as discussed here, have important historical roots. Expanding labor and corporate money in political campaigns is hardly reform.
There is some indication that these potentially corrupting provisions were added to the bill "in exchange" for the broad disclosure provisions. If such a "deal" did occur, it is a bad one. Broad disclosure is important, but increasing the influence of a select few has the potential to place our democratic initiations at risk. Furthermore the "deal" may be no deal at all. If the broad disclosure provisions are determined to be unconstitutional, then we might end up with higher contribution limits and more corporate and union money flowing into the system, with nothing to show for it. The legislature should stick with broad-based disclosure requirements, and reject any effort to expand contribution limits and corporate and union involvement in elections.
The legislature can do better, and the citizens of Ohio deserve better.