October 8, 2013

Maine Voices: High court may be poised to give rich even more sway over elections

McCutcheon v. FEC could further erode efforts in Maine and other states to give all voters a voice.


 Just who is Shaun McCutcheon, and why does he matter?

about the authors

Nick Nyhart is president of Public Campaign, and Andrew Bossie is executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

McCutcheon is a wealthy electrical engineer from Alabama who owns Coalmont Electrical Development, a general contracting firm that works mainly with energy and mining operations.

He is also a big donor to Republican candidates and causes.

McCutcheon matters because he, along with the Republican National Committee, has challenged a central part of federal election law. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a direct challenge to the aggregate contribution limit that caps what a donor may contribute to federal candidates.

Contribution limits are an important tool that aims to limit government corruption by special interests, and there is longstanding precedent for upholding limits. But under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has already turned much of federal campaign finance law upside down – think back just a few years ago to Citizens United – and it may not be done yet.


Do you plan to give more than $123,200 in political donations during the 2014 election cycle? Probably not, since that represents double what most of us make in a year. In fact, just over 1,200 Americans are at or near that cap – only four in every million of us.

McCutcheon wants to give more than that limit, arguing that it unconstitutionally restricts his right of free speech under the First Amendment.

Since it is legal to make a contribution of $2,600 per election to a federal candidate, McCutcheon believes that he should be able to make that maximum contribution to an unlimited number of candidates, potentially giving several million dollars directly to candidates in just one election cycle.

He’d also like to make unlimited donations to party committees.

And since McCutcheon is a deep-pocketed and sophisticated political donor, his giving doesn’t have to stop there. He is already free to make unlimited independent expenditures, and so is his company, Coalmont, thanks to Citizens United. He can also make donations to candidates in state races, to political action committees and any number of other legal vehicles for political activity.

But all of that is not enough for McCutcheon and his allies. Despite the rollback of state and federal laws resulting from earlier Roberts court rulings, there is still plenty of campaign finance law standing. McCutcheon v. FEC is one more case in the organized, tenacious effort to dismantle this body of law.

From limits to transparency to public financing, all provisions are under challenge, whether in the courts or in Legislatures.

Maine has a long history of its own organized and tenacious effort – one to reduce the influence of big money in elections and in government.

In 1996, Maine people successfully created the country’s first full public funding system for state offices, the Maine Clean Election Act. In that same referendum, Maine people set reasonable limits for privately funded candidates and implemented provisions to ensure that information about campaign fundraising and spending would be transparent and easy to access.

Maine people know that the First Amendment doesn’t begin and end with the idea of unlimited political cash.

Mainers have worked hard to make sure that all voices are heard in elections, that ordinary people are able to participate in every aspect of elections, and that candidates are able to run for office without relying on wealthy, self-interested donors.

(Continued on page 2)

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