When the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down overall federal limits on how much money people can give to multiple candidates, parties and political action committees, it also effectively put an end to similar contribution limits in Wisconsin, campaign finance experts said.
Abolishing Wisconsin’s aggregate limits would mean people could contribute any amount they wish to multiple candidates and political action committees. Individuals have been barred from contributing more than $10,000 each calendar year to any combination of Wisconsin candidates or political committees.
“I think it’s obvious that it puts the $10,000 aggregate limit in jeopardy,” said Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison-based campaign finance attorney who has worked for both sides of the political aisle, about the Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC. “I don’t know how it can be found to be constitutional based on the McCutcheon decision.”
Election officials with the state Government Accountability Board and the state Department of Justice are reviewing the Supreme Court decision.
The ruling has been praised by many conservatives as a free speech victory. Many liberal groups and Democrats, however, say it weakens democracy by giving wealthy donors more power in the political process. But both conservatives and liberals agreed Thursday that the decision will likely end Wisconsin’s aggregate limits.
“Wisconsin is among the states that have aggregate limits,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election spending. “I fully expect that wealthy interests will seek to challenge state limits.”
He warned of dire consequences of the ruling.
“It weakens voters,” McCabe said. “It makes their elected officials even more beholden to these wealthy donors.”
But Wittenwyler said he believes the ruling will encourage more “hard money,” or more campaign contributions flowing through the regulated system where there is more disclosure required — unlike donations to other types of third-party groups that can be given secretly.
Wittenwyler said that in the wake of Wednesday’s ruling, interested donors shouldn’t be shy about contributing more than $10,000 — provided they wouldn’t mind becoming a test case in Wisconsin.
“I think if you’re a donor, you don’t wait. You do it,” Wittenwyler said. “Anyone who tries to enforce it would be a fool.”
While Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling dealt only with donations in federal races, a current state lawsuit that’s already been filed may be the test case on Wisconsin’s limits.
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, has been representing Fred Young, a Racine man who sued state election officials last year over Wisconsin’s aggregate limits.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee put the case on hold pending the outcome of the McCutcheon case.
“It really will be up to the state whether they want to try to continue to litigate this,” Esenberg said.
But he added that he believes the Supreme Court’s ruling will bring him a win in the case.
“I think that the aggregate limits in Wisconsin are unconstitutional,” Esenberg said. “The aggregate limits in Wisconsin are more stringent than they are on the federal level.”
Esenberg agreed with Wittenwyler that the Supreme Court ruling may result in money being redirected “away from independent groups to candidates.”
State elections officials have not yet determined what the Supreme Court ruling means for aggregate contributions to state races.
“We don’t know yet,” said Reid Magney, spokesman for the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. “Right now we’re still busy analyzing the 18 bills the Legislature just passed dealing with elections and campaign finance. Our first priority is analyzing the impact of all of those bills.”
Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, said, “We are reviewing the decision.”
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