Federal courts — not the White House, not Congress — have triggered the most earthshaking changes in how recent U.S. elections are funded.
Think Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the Supreme Court allowed corporate spending in elections.
Or SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, which created super PACs.
Or McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which let donors give money to as many federal political candidates as they pleased.
But the latest Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, in May, maintained the status quo.
In Republican Party of Louisiana v. Federal Election Commission, the justices affirmed a lower court decision and upheld restrictions on “soft money,” or unlimited funding streams to parties banned in 2002 by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as “McCain-Feingold” for the two senators who sponsored it.
These limits are one of the few pillars left standing from that legislation — although a new kind of “soft money” has nevertheless found its way into party politics thanks in part to the McCutcheon decision.
Having won significant battles at the federal level, political groups and libertarian nonprofits are now targeting state-level rules in district and appellate courts across the country.
The effects could be wide-ranging. The most notable battles deal with when groups need to disclose their donors, and whether contribution limits trample on donors’ freedoms of speech and expression.
“It’s a strategy we’re seeing across the country,” said Megan McAllen, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “There’s not much left of campaign finance law to target.”
Political organizations with significant cash reserves are fighting to keep the identities of their major backers private.