Court halts state limits on late ballot donations

OLYMPIA — A state law that restricts large donations to ballot measures in the weeks before an election is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the limits improperly restrain free speech. The laws had prohibited donations exceeding $5,000 in the 21 days before a general election.

Washington’s attorney general had argued that that the rules were necessary to ensure that mail-in voters knew who was funding the ballot measures. The court rejected that argument, saying voters who cast a ballot before Election Day make that choice on their own and that donation information is reported regularly in those final days.

“Washington’s limit nonetheless imposes a significant burden, because it limits contributions during the critical three-week period before the election, when political committees may want to respond to developing events,” the judges wrote.

The court, however, did approve of a requirement to identify donors who contribute more than $25. Family PAC, a political group involved in the 2009 referendum on expanded domestic partnerships for gay couples, had sued over that law.

Bill Maurer, the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, said the court correctly struck down the contribution limits but left burdensome reporting rules standing.

“Under our Constitution, the government has no role in collecting and disseminating the names, addresses, employers, occupations or other information of ordinary Americans just because they gave $25.01 to support or oppose a ballot measure,” he said in a statement.

Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said she was happy that the disclosure requirements were upheld. Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said the office was reviewing options on the court’s decision regarding last-minute contributions.

“State law was designed to prevent attempts to secretly influence elections with large, last-minute contributions, and we’re reviewing how this decision impacts the state’s ability to prevent that,” Guthrie said.

The ruling came two months after Costco Wholesale Corp. committed some $22 million to a plan to privatize liquor sales. The company’s largest donation — about $9 million — came a little more than three weeks before the election, right before the $5,000 limit would take effect.


Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.

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