WILL Challenges Wisconsin Campaign Finance Restriction

Published on: June 23, 2014

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The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (“WILL”) has filed a lawsuit against the State, challenging a Wisconsin statute that prohibits a political action committee (PAC) from making a campaign donation of even a very small amount  if other PACs have already made donations to a candidate that reach a certain limit.  The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of CRG Network, a PAC whose mission is to educate citizens and promote the election of candidates who are fiscally responsible.  CRG Network attempted to make small donations to three such candidates, only to have their donations returned (in whole or in part) as a result of the law in question.

The case will be heard in the United States Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Under Wis. Stat. §11.26(9), the State imposes a hard and fast limit on the total dollar amount a candidate for state office may accept in donations from political committees.  For example, a candidate for the State Senate may accept no more than a total of $15,525 from all committees and a candidate for the Assembly may accept no more than a total of $7,763.  That means that a candidate may accept contributions from the first few committees that want to support her, but later contributions, no matter how small, must be refused.

Rick Esenberg, President and General Counsel of WILL, points out that this “first in time” system makes no sense under existing First Amendment law.  The restrictions cannot be justified by the State’s interest in avoiding corruption in the campaign process.  There is no reason to suppose that the first $250 contribution to a candidate from a political committee is perfectly acceptable, but some later contribution in exactly the same amount from a different committee is not.

The Wisconsin statute prevents groups like CRG Network from making a donation of any amount to a candidate if other political committees have already donated a relatively small amount to that same candidate.  And in fact, CRG recently had checks returned from three different candidates for State Assembly because of this statute.  Each check was in the amount of $250.  Chris Kliesmet, the Treasurer of CRG Network says that “On behalf of the contributors to CRG Network, we want to help qualified candidates who believe in the same principles that we do get elected.  I have been frustrated with the government’s interference with our ability to participate in the process.  I do not understand why we cannot make a small donation to candidates that we agree with just because some other political committees donated to the candidate before we did. ”

According to Esenberg, “This new lawsuit is simply another step to bring Wisconsin’s campaign finance restrictions into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.  The United States Supreme Court has long recognized and has re-emphasized in the recent McCutcheon case that campaign contributions are exercises of the constitutional rights of free speech and association and may be restricted only if absolutely necessary to prevent the risk of quid pro quo corruption. Although reasonable limits may be placed on the size of a contribution, the State’s interest in preventing corruption is not served by limiting the number of legal contributions a candidate may receive

WILL previously and successfully challenged the limit on aggregate contributions by individuals contained in Wis. Stat. §11.26(4) in Young v. GAB.

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