With campaign season underway in the state of Maryland, candidates received a gift in the form of more flexible campaign financing. Thanks in part to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling, the cap has been lifted on the total amount donors may contribute to candidates. The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, involved plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee. Mr. McCutcheon had donated approximately $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office during the 2012 cycle and wished to contribute an additional $1,776 each to 12 more candidates; however, the overall cap for individuals prohibited it. Furthermore, the RNC expressed its wishes to receive contributions above the legal limit established for political committees. The high court ruled that aggregate campaign contribution caps were unconstitutional, infringing upon donors’ rights to free speech.
The case drew parallels to the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court eliminated limits on independent campaign spending by unions and corporations. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer sharply criticized the ruling, stating that “if the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” Currently, donors may only contribute up to $6,000 to a single candidate within the four-year election cycle, but there are no longer restrictions on the maximum amount they may contribute to the collective pool of candidates. Additionally, there is no contribution cap for donations to political action committees. Maryland election officials have already expressed that the $10,000 limit and $24,000 limit from the 2014 and 2018 election cycles respectively will not be enforced. The Supreme Court’s ruling affected just 10 states; however, with Maryland having the lowest aggregate cap in the nation, the effect will be more prominent.
There is already evidence that election costs are on the rise. According to the political watchdog group, Common Cause, the 2016 Baltimore City Council races saw a 50 percent increase in cost than the previous election cycle five years prior. On January 1, 2015, several key provisions took effect following the state legislature’s previous overhaul of Maryland’s campaign finance law. The new law established an electronic registration system monitored by the Maryland State Board of Elections, mandating electronic reporting of contributions made by the contractor, in addition to its political action committee, subsidiaries, directors, partners, and officers. Furthermore, politically active nonprofits must register and provide a full disclosure of their donors. Failing to adhere to these requirements would result in penalties for nonprofits that knowingly and intentionally fail to file registration notices or reports.
One of the arguments made in support of the removal of aggregate caps is that it empowers the American electorate, removing restrictions that may have otherwise greatly hindered a citizen’s right to participate in the democratic process. However, let’s be realistic — the elimination of such limits benefits the wealthy more than it does a low-income or middle-class citizen. Although we should always encourage civic participation in the election process, it certainly can be and has been a problem when a small, concentrated number of very wealthy individuals can significantly control the direction of our nation’s politics with their checkbooks. Yes, citizens from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds donate to campaigns and political action committees every election cycle; however, the average contributor will never benefit from the removal of aggregate limits. On the flip side, this will assist candidates who aren’t at the top of the ballot in 2018 onward, increasing the ability for a trickling down of campaign funds from gubernatorial and federal office races. The 2018 elections will certainly see an increase in campaign contributions and costs.