Slate: This Lawsuit in Alaska Could Upend the Campaign Finance Landscape

A little-known court case in Alaska could be the next big money-in-politics controversy, says Slate. 

As we explained here, the case called Thompson v. Hebdon, involves various challenges from opponents of Alaska’s campaign finance reforms. One challenged provision limits how much money candidates for state office can accept from nonresident (out-of-state) contributors. (As the Alaska Supreme Court once observed, “Alaska has a long history of both support from and exploitation by nonresident interests. Its beauty and resources have long been lightning rods for social, developmental, and environmental interests.”)

As Slate reports, “One of Alaska’s most contentious provisions caps the amount of money that state-level candidates can receive from out-of-state donors and is now part of a lawsuit that will soon go before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a lower court upheld the restrictions.”

The challenger to the law is David Thompson, who in 2015 donated $100 to support the re-election of his brother-in-law, former Republican Alaska state Rep. Wes Keller. Thompson lives in Wisconsin, and Keller had already reached the limit for out-of-state contributions, so the campaign had to return the money. Thompson’s lawyers are aping the arguments in Citizens United, contending that this limit on campaign contributions is an unconstitutional regulation of free speech. Thompson told the Alaska Dispatch News, “I thought it was pretty restrictive and it held up my ability to speak out.”

Attorneys for Alaska are citing as precedent Bluman v. FEC, a 2012 Supreme Court case ruling that foreign citizens do not have the right to contribute money to U.S. elections. The state’s attorneys wrote in their brief, “Just as a Canadian citizen is not part of the political community governed by the U.S. federal government, a Florida resident is not part of the political community governed by the Alaska state government.” Advocacy group Free Speech for People, which filed an amicus brief supporting Alaska in July, points out that the state has long been suspicious of out-of-state actors interfering in its politics. The Alaskan tundra is often the target of companies seeking to tap its natural resources and to influence local elections—presumably for extraction privileges.

Although the decision on Thompson v. Hebdon would only directly affect Alaska’s state-level elections, the legal rationale behind these limits, if upheld in court, could be of consequence for elections in other states, including congressional races. A state’s election laws must abide by the Constitution, so if a federal court decides that a state is not hindering the First Amendment by limiting outside donations, then any future laws imposing similar restrictions on congressional races would also likely be consistent with the Constitution.

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