Multnomah County Judge Greenlights Voter-Approved Campaign Finance Limits

It’s another incremental step in the long-running campaign to limit political spending.

walk the vote Election 2020. (Chris Nesseth)

In an Aug. 23 ruling, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Erich Bloch moved campaign finance limits in county races one step closer to reality.

In a 16-page ruling, Bloch found that a 2016 ballot measure county voters approved overwhelmingly—89% to 11%—does not fall afoul of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Campaign finance limits are where Oregon’s notoriously permissive free speech laws meet its determined cadre of good-government reformers, led by public interest lawyer Dan Meek.

In 2016, Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly approved political spending caps but, like a holiday fruitcake that gets shipped back and forth but never eaten, those limits have bounced around in the courts ever since without ever being implemented.

Because the state has long operated without contribution limits, county officials took the step after the 2016 election of asking the courts to affirm that enacting contribution limits would pass constitutional muster.

The election result went up to the Oregon Supreme Court, which sent it back to Multnomah County for further review.

Campaign finance limitations have long been a controversial issue in Oregon, one of a handful of states with no limits on contributions. But Judge Bloch looked at other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Austin, Texas, all of which have enacted limits comparable to Multnomah County’s $500 cap.

Bloch’s ruling will place Multnomah County alongside those jurisdictions (and should affirm limits Portland voters passed for city elections in 2018).

Bloch found the limits in other cities have not created undue impediments to fair elections. His analysis of other potential problems that limits could cause similarly found no disqualifying issues.

“The court hereby concludes the limit is appropriately consistent with the free speech rights guaranteed by First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that the Multnomah County campaign contribution limit is, therefore, constitutional, lawful and valid,” Bloch wrote.

In a statement, county officials said they will now direct Multnomah County Elections to enact contribution limits.

“I am pleased that the county can finally implement the campaign finance reforms that 89% of the voters supported,’’ County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement. “We are glad we can move forward.’’

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