Montana’s Votes Come Cheap

By Kellyn Brown

Some have shrugged at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn parts of the decades-old campaign finance law that now allows corporations and unions to spend as much money as they please on elections. And perhaps those with more modest means – individual voters – have little to worry about.

Doug Pinkman, president of the Public Affairs Council that advises corporations on political activity, told the Wall Street Journal that he doesn’t expect “a tidal wave of money coming from corporate America.” And the political-action director for the AFL-CIO, Karen Ackerman, said that it “will not have a major impact” on the group’s efforts.

True, entities that value their bottom lines have little incentive to take sides in elections that divide America and risk alienating their consumers. For example, if a company like Google or Ford chose to back a candidate, they could be inviting backlash with half their potential buyers.

In fact, about 40 executives, including those from Quaker Chemical Corp, toymaker Hasbro and Delta Airlines, wrote an open letter to the nation’s congressmen urging them to approve public financing for House and Senate campaigns and stop hitting them up for cash. It read, in part:

“Members of Congress already spend too much time raising money from large contributors. And often, many of us individually are on the receiving end of solicitation phone calls from members of Congress. With additional money flowing into the system due to the court’s decision, the fund-raising pressure on members of Congress will only increase.”

But if history is any indication, assuming corporations won’t try to buy elections if given the chance is wishful thinking. Montana was one of the first states to lessen the influence of deep-pocketed industries when, in 1912, voters passed an initiative banning corporate spending on candidates in response to Copper King William Clark’s bribing the state Legislature to gain a U.S. Senate seat. At the time, state legislators elected U.S. senators instead of voters.

Now, Montana’s and similar laws in several states are in real jeopardy of being overturned. Following the high court’s far-reaching, if expected, ruling, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said the state ban would stay in place, unless challenged, but acknowledged that the “Supreme Court decision goes against what our policy here in Montana has been for a century.”

States like ours could be especially vulnerable to the law change, because the price of influencing an election here is far less expensive that it is elsewhere. It’s simply cheaper to buy airtime, advertisements and send out mailers – in other words attract the eyes and ears of the voting public.

If Montana’s law is overturned, the ramifications may not be felt for some time. In 2010, the only major statewide race is for Congressman Denny Rehberg’s seat in which the Republican incumbent is heavily favored.

But in the U.S. Senate, where each state gets equal representation and one vote can change the trajectory of the chamber (look at Massachusetts for proof), one would expect money to pour into states like Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota like never before.

This has been defended as a nonpartisan issue. The law doesn’t discriminate against who can spend money. And both the NRA and ACLU urged the court to strike down provisions in the McCain-Feingold Act.

But this ruling went much further than that. And it has the potential to create a one-size-fits-all policy, one that opens the floodgates to money from outside interest groups, and change a bedrock state law that, until now, was uncontroversial and seemed to be functioning quite well.

We can only hope that those who dismiss this decision as a formality, and argue that it will do little to change campaign spending, are right. But I doubt it. And if Montana’s campaign-finance law is overturned, expect to get more of your information from third parties and less from the candidates themselves.