Florida's campaign finance system is not perfect. Since Citizens United, the proliferation of opaque and unaccountable outside groups has affected Florida politics just as it has in other states and at the federal level. Some advocates in the Sunshine State, however, are setting themselves apart by proposing an especially bad solution to the problem — eliminating contribution limits entirely.
Nearly 75 percent of all money spent in Florida's 2012 election flowed from outside groups, including party committees and the state-level analogues of traditional PACs and super PACs, according to Integrity Florida. The nonpartisan government watchdog group laments the problem, arguing that the state's relatively low $500 contribution limit provides incentives to give to outside groups. But their solution — eliminating contribution limits — would only increase the corrosive influence of money in politics.
Unfortunately, many lawmakers appear willing to embrace this counterintuitive logic. Legislation introduced by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, would eliminate one kind of outside group unique to Florida — Committees of Continuous Existence, essentially traditional PACs that must raise a quarter of their money from membership dues.
But CCEs do not substantially undermine contribution limits — they too are permitted to give no more than $500 to candidates. Weatherford's bill poses a much greater threat. While it would not eliminate contribution limits entirely, it would dramatically raise them to $10,000 — four times the federal limit.
These changes, Weatherford argues, are a starting point for reform and a means to improve Florida's campaign finance laws without inflicting greater harm. In his words, the bill aims at "keeping the baby and throwing out the bathwater."
In fact, it would do just the opposite. Raising contribution limits would eliminate one reform with an empirically proven capacity to promote electoral competition.
Research by the Brennan Center for Justice spearheaded by George Mason University professor Thomas Stratmann shows that incumbents in states with contribution limits of $500 or lower (like Florida) enjoy average margins of victory 14.5 percentage points lower than those in states with contribution limits over $2,000.
Other research by Stratmann estimates that each doubling of a state's contribution limit is associated with a widening of incumbents' average margin of victory by 7.3 points. Weatherford's proposal would double the limit more than four times, so it's conceivable that the bill could cushion incumbents' vote totals by as much as 30 points.
These are not surprising findings. Incumbents are readily able to fill their campaign coffers by relying on large contributions — especially bundled large contributions. They have established fundraising networks that already helped them secure office and legions of special interests eager to bolster their lobbying efforts by making campaign contributions.
Challengers rarely enjoy these benefits. High-quality challengers are likely to wait for a retirement, a crippling scandal or an extremely favorable partisan wave to seek office rather than confront an incumbent. Without strong opponents, incumbents can cruise to re-election.
Lower contribution limits also promote a healthier civic process. If candidates can raise all the money they need in large increments, there is no incentive for them to reach out to a large swath of the electorate. This has ripple effects on the overall quality of democracy in a state. Individuals who contribute to a campaign are more likely to involve themselves in politics in other ways, such as volunteering or displaying a yard sign. Candidates can be agents for civic participation if election laws encourage them to mobilize the grass roots.
Instead of raising contribution limits, Florida lawmakers should support proven reforms that can promote electoral competition and transparency. They can start by embracing stronger disclosure requirements, as other states have since Citizens United. Then Florida should adopt public campaign financing, which has successfully amplified the voices of ordinary voters in jurisdictions around the country.
To be sure, low contribution limits do not guarantee competitive elections or an engaged citizenry. Many factors shape electoral dynamics. Partisan redistricting and vote-suppressing laws are just two examples of other variables that can depress competition and civic activity.
But eliminating a mechanism with a proven capacity to promote more closely contested elections and the potential to spur participation won't help. Florida should retain its low contribution limits and find other, better ways to reduce the influence of outside money and promote competitive, grassroots-focused elections.
Jonathan Backer is a research associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.