Multnomah County Campaign Finance Limits Overturned by Circuit Court Judge

A ballot measure with overwhelming support for limiting campaign contributions fails to pass muster in the courts.

When Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to limit campaign contributions and expenditures in November 2016, they ran afoul of the state constitution, a county circuit judge ruled today.

Last August, the county commission sent the campaign finance ballot measure and county ordinances to the courts for vetting—to assess whether they were in line with the state constitution. Voters had approved the ballot measure by a vote of 89 percent to 11 percent.

Nearly seven months later, the county has its answer: no.

The county cannot limit contributions to $500, Multnomah County Circuit Court judge Eric J. Bloch ruled today. It cannot limit independent expenditures. The county also cannot compel candidates to disclose the largest contributors for each campaign campaign mailing, at least as currently written.

"These contribution limitations are impermissible under the free speech guarantees" of the Oregon constitution, wrote Bloch in a decision today, citing past state supreme court decisions.

"My first reaction is I'm disappointed," says County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "We all had hoped this would be a pathway to getting big money out of politics….We have to figure out a way that passes constitutional muster."

The decision throws into doubt similar efforts to pass campaign finance limits at the city level.

It also likely puts to rest questions about whether Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith had violated those fundraising caps even as she ran for City Council but accepted donations to an old county campaign finance committee. (The county had chosen not to enforce the rules until the court ruled, so she faced no repercussions.)

Update 8:30 pm:

Backers of the ballot measure said they planned to appeal.

"We want to take big money out of politics, and now we must appeal this outcome to the Oregon Court of Appeals," says Jason Kafoury, chair of the Honest Elections Committee, said in a statement,

"We believe that 37 states have freedom of speech clauses effectively identical to Oregon's Constitution and still have limits on campaign contributions. Many of them require political ads to identify their largest funders. We believe we will win at the Court of Appeals, and the Oregon Supreme Court, if necessary."

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