Alaska campaign finance case won’t be reheard, likely striking down some key contribution limits

Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 1:25 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 27, 2021 at 6:12 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A federal appeals court will not rehear an Alaska campaign finance case, which likely means there will soon be no limit on how much an Alaskan or an out-of-state donor can give to a candidate.

The three-member Ninth Circuit appeals court panel ruled in late July that some of Alaska’s campaign limits violate the First Amendment and are unconstitutional, including:

  • The $500 per year contribution limit from individuals to candidates and the $500 limit from individuals to election-related groups.
  • The $5,000 limit from a political party to a candidate was upheld as being valid.
  • The panel affirmed an earlier decision to strike down the $3,000 cap from out-of-state contributors to candidates.

After a split decision, Chief Judge Sidney Thomas of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had asked for 10 judges from that court to vote on whether to rehear the case. On Wednesday, that request was withdrawn.

The decision likely sets up a scenario where those contentious limits will be struck down once the court’s mandate is issued, unless new caps are enacted. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are currently 11 states that have no contribution limits on individual donors.

Alaska’s contribution limits on individual donors have been some of the lowest in the country, second only to Colorado’s.

State Senate Democrats had asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to defend the state’s campaign contribution limits. The Department of Law confirmed on Thursday that it would not be asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said that the Legislature should act to pass new caps on individual donations and suggested a $1,000 or $1,500-a-year limit from individuals to candidates that would increase with inflation.

He was concerned about the impact of unlimited donations being given to candidates said and it was different than giving an unlimited amount of money to independent expenditure groups, Alaska’s version of SuperPACs, which aren’t allowed to coordinate with a candidate.

“I think that’s very damaging, it’s very corrosive to our democracy and hopefully we can get this fixed, quickly,” Wielechowski said.

The appeals court’s majority opinion that struck down some of Alaska’s campaign contribution limits suggested they benefit incumbents. Challengers could struggle to raise the same amount of money as they are at a disadvantage of being less well-known in the community, the opinion said.

Robin Brena, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in August that the courts have made clear the only acceptable campaign limit is “to avoid quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.”

In a dissent, Thomas cited evidence that Alaska is uniquely susceptible to corruption due to its reliance on the oil and gas industry for state revenue and the small size of the Legislature.

Editor’s note: this story has been edited to include additional information.

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