Our democracy is under unprecedented attack from overseas, but the federal government has been unable or unwilling to protect our campaign-finance system. We shouldn’t have to, but America is depending on our local and state governments to fill the void with innovative solutions. That’s what St. Petersburg is doing.
The city’s “Defend Our Democracy” ordinance, which the City Council passed in 2017, is a national model for dark money reform.
This terrific ordinance is now itself under attack – but from a domestic adversary. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has attached a last-minute amendment to an unrelated election bill that would preempt St. Pete’s rule and prevent any Florida county or city from enacting any restrictions on contributions to political committees or spending on electioneering communications and independent expenditures.
The “foreign-influenced corporations” section of St. Pete’s ordinance draws upon a legal theory I developed: The Citizens United majority protected the First Amendment rights of corporations as “associations of citizens.” It held that a corporation’s right to participate in elections flows from the collected rights of its individual shareholders to participate. So, then, the limits on the rights of those shareholders must also flow to the corporation.
And a foundational campaign-finance limit is that foreign nationals are absolutely barred from spending directly or indirectly in U.S. elections at any political level – federal, state or municipal. It defies logic to allow groups of foreign nationals – or foreign nationals in combination with American citizens – to fund political spending through corporations. Foreign nationals could otherwise get around the ban on political spending and spend unlimited funds in our elections simply by forming or funding a limited-liability company (an LLC), which costs just $160 to do in Florida.
St. Petersburg’s ordinance interprets federal statutory law and the Citizens United decision and requires corporations seeking to spend in city politics to certify that they are not foreign-influenced – that is, that they have less than 5 percent ownership by one foreign owner, or 20 percent total ownership by all its foreign owners.
The city’s pioneering approach has gained steam elsewhere. Similar measures passed the Seattle City Council in January and are being considered by the legislatures in Maryland and New York.
Washington’s ideological gridlock and obstruction have stopped a stack of election-protection bills in Congress. White House and Senate negligence has deprived the Federal Election Commission, where I serve as a commissioner, of its quorum, leaving us unable to enforce federal campaign finance laws.
If the Florida Legislature approves Sen. Brandes’ move, it will shut down one of America’s most productive laboratories of democracy. And it will snuff out the ability of every county and municipal legislator in Florida to improve our broken campaign-finance system.
That would be wrong. It would hurt St. Petersburg and Florida -- and America. As this nation embarks upon what promises to be an extraordinarily consequential and hotly contested presidential election year, we need to do more – not less – to protect our elections. Sen. Brandes’ unfortunate legislative ploy should be fought hard and defeated.
Ellen L. Weintraub is a commissioner on the U.S. Federal Election Commission.