NVRI E-News: March 1, 2006

NVRI Comments on Supreme Court Review of Vermont Spending Limit Law


Vermont's comprehensive campaign reforms came in for hard questioning in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, but the Court arguments only underscored the fundamental values at stake in NVRI's work: the belief that government must be responsive to voters, not to moneyed interests that fund campaigns; that elections must be open to broad participation and competition, not controlled by massive campaign war chests that leave so many elections effectively uncontested; that elections should be about finding the best representative, not the best fundraiser.

Debate over these values was on display in much of the questioning, such as Chief Justice Roberts' suggestion that Vermont should not be permitted to enact reforms aimed at deterring corruption because the state has had no bribery convictions. Regardless of bribery convictions - which the Court never before has required as a pre-condition for campaign finance regulation - Vermont has seen extremely disturbing examples of how the need for campaign cash compromises the independence of officeholders. For example, the Vermont Senate President refused to sponsor a food-labeling bill, even though he agreed with it on the merits, because "I can't afford to lose the food manufacturer money." If these and other troubling examples of money-driven decision-making are insufficient, the result will be a true Catch-22 for campaign finance reform: a state will be permitted to enact reforms only if it is so permeated by corruption that there is virtually no possibility it will enact the reforms in the first place. NVRI continues to believe that the First Amendment imposes no such straitjacket on the states.

One revealing point in the argument came when Justice Stevens asked James Bopp, the attorney for Vermont Right to Life, whether he was arguing that the Constitution entirely forecloses campaign spending limits, regardless of how strong the evidence demonstrating the need for them. His answer was "no," and indeed a number of the Justices appeared to agree. If so, the terms of the debate clearly have shifted from the assumption that Buckley automatically invalidates any limit on candidates' campaign spending, a shift reflecting over a decade of efforts by NVRI and its allies seeking to revisit the issue.

What the Court ultimately will say about Vermont's spending limits, and about its contribution limits ranging from $200 for Vermont House races to $400 for statewide races, will have to await the Court's decision, which is expected by June. Whatever the outcome, NVRI will continue to fight for fair, open and participatory elections that serve the interests of voters.

Best regards,

Stuart Comstock-Gay
Executive Director
National Voting Rights Institute

To read all about the case and Vermont's electoral reform law, click here.

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