D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan ruled Thursday that a proposed ballot initiative to ban corporate donations to city candidates can move forward, saying the proposal is a “proper subject” to put before voters.
The ruling appears to clear the way for supporters of the initiative to start collecting the 22,000 signatures needed to get the question on the November ballot.
In response to a question from the Board of Elections and Ethics, Nathan said the “Fair Elections to Restore Public Trust” initiative would not conflict with the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling that found personal political contributions are largely free speech.
Nathan said the ballot initiative meets constitutional muster because federal appellate courts have maintained that corporate contributions can continue to be restricted. Nathan cites the 2003 Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont case.
“The court held that contribution limits, up to and including complete bans on direct corporate contributions, are constitutional if they are ‘closely drawn’ to match a ‘sufficiently important interest,’ ” Nathan wrote to Kenneth McGhie, general counsel for the elections board.
Nathan added, “Following Citizens United, at least two federal appellate courts have evaluated and rejected the argument that Citizens United implicitly overruled Beaumont, and sustained bans on corporations and other business entities contributing to candidates.”
Frustrated by corporations’ ability to funnel multiple donations to candidates through limited liability contributions, Ward 1 activist Bryan Weaver and Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sylvia Brown proposed the initiative last month. They formed the Committee to Restore Public Trust, which has the support of D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
In their filings with the Board of Elections and Ethics, supporters said a ban on corporate giving would align the District with federal law while also guarding against so-called “pay to play.”
Under the city charter, a measure can be petitioned onto the ballot as long as it does not appropriate money, “negate or limit” a council budget act, or violate the city’s Human Rights Act. Nathan ruled that there would be no such conflict with the “Fair Elections to Restore Public Trust” proposal.
“The provisions in the proposed initiative that relate to contributions … are all related to a valid government interest as described by the Supreme Court,” Nathan wrote.
Currently, the District allows business entities to donate directly to political funds — including campaigns, transitions, constituent services and legal defense funds — subject to the same contribution limits that apply to individuals
Before supporters can pick up petitions, the Board of Elections and Ethics will still have to a hold a public hearing to vet any concerns about approving the referendum. Supporters would then have 180 days to collect valid signatures from 5 percent of registered voters
So far, there appears to be limited formal opposition to the proposal, and odds appear to heavily favor passage if it lands on the ballot. But opponents could argue that the measure is unfair because it does not seek to ban contributions from labor unions.