Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) introduced the Stop Unlimited Contributions Act early last week in what Sargent called an effort to “restore the integrity of our democracy by limiting the influence of special interest money in our state.”
But the actual effect of their proposed legislation would be to interfere with free speech. The gist of the bill is to reduce the monetary amounts individuals can donate to a campaign. However, as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has written before, attempts to limit campaign contributions interfere with free speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it very clear that campaign contributions are a form of speech. In today’s day and age, money is the mechanism that allows most political speech to occur through television, radio, and social media advertising. Therefore, when politicians restrict a citizen’s right to contribute money for political speech, they are restricting expression in the same way that a limit on how much a person could spend on legal fees would restrict their right to counsel or a limit on how much money could be donated to a church would hurt the free exercise of religion.
In 2015, the Wisconsin legislature passed 2015 Wisconsin Act 117 which was a substantial overhaul of Wisconsin’s campaign finance statutes. The changes were necessary to bring Wisconsin’s campaign finance rules into compliance with federal court rulings on the subject. In order to reduce the influence of third party advertising in political campaigns, Wisconsin’s new law allows individuals to make unlimited contributions to a political party or a legislative campaign committee in the same way that they could to third party groups. This result strengthens the organizing ability and clout of political parties which are more likely to be held accountable at the ballot box than independent groups. The new law also increased the contribution limits to candidates across the board, making them less dependent on third party advertising.
Sargent and Larson now want to undo that good work. While they frame their legislation as restoring integrity or protecting democracy, what their proposed new law would actually do is limit freedom of speech in a way that benefits them. As elected officials, with the advantage of incumbency, they want to control the amounts that can be raised by their opponents in future elections. They want to limit the rights of their constituents to spend money on political speech that opposes entrenched interests.
If the legislature truly values the integrity of our democracy, they will see the Stop Unlimited Contributions Act as a threat to the freedom of speech and nothing more than protection for incumbents. The legislature should stick with the 2015 reforms and stop this bill in its tracks.
Lucas Vebber is Deputy Counsel and Brian McGrath is Senior Counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.