Campaign contribution limits passed by Multnomah County voters are now able to be enforced in local elections, following a ruling issued this week.
On Monday, Judge Eric J. Bloch of Multnomah County Circuit Court ruled that campaign contribution limits do not violate free speech protected by the First Amendment.
The ruling puts an end to a lengthy back-and-forth over a $500 limit on individual campaign donations widely approved by Multnomah County voters in 2016 along with spending limits and requirements that candidates disclose their contributions in political ads.
Bloch’s opinion reverses a ruling he issued in 2018 that struck down the contribution cap, limits on campaign spending and disclosure requirements for candidates, saying that they violated the state’s expansive free-speech protections.
Multnomah County appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled last April that the limit was legal under the state’s constitution.
According to a county press release Thursday, the state Supreme Court’s decision highlighted that the trial court had not initially answered the First Amendment question, and remanded the case back to Multnomah County to reexamine it.
“I am pleased that the County can finally implement the campaign finance reforms that 89 percent of the voters supported,’’ County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement. “We are glad we can move forward.’’
The ruling is sure to put Multnomah County back in the spotlight in terms of discussions around statewide caps on campaign donations. Oregon is one of only five states with no limits at all on political contributions, despite decades of effort by campaign finance activists.
In 2018, Portland voters passed new laws regulating campaign contributions which bars political contributions from corporations and limits the amount a candidate can receive from an individual donor to $500. Individuals can give no more than $5,000 total to city candidates and initiatives per election, while political committees can make aggregate contributions of no more than $10,000 per election.
The Oregon Supreme Court’s April 2020 opinion reversed a long-standing ruling barring limits on political donations, reigniting interest in a 2006 ballot measure that limited contributions to $500 to statewide candidates and $100 to other state and local officials.
Support for statewide campaign contribution limits were dealt a blow when former Secretary of State Bev Clarno announced in May of last year that she would not enforce the 2006 measure.
The effort was further diminished by a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling that stated Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s campaign did not need to limit his spending, after a suit filed by his main opponent brought into question his use of funds loaned to his campaign by himself.
But voters took measures into their own hands last fall when they passed Measure 107, which asked Oregonians if contribution limits should be explicitly allowed in the state’s constitution.
The result was a step forward in a decades-old fight over how much say the state and local governments can have over campaign cash. While the measure contains no actual campaign finance limits, it inserts language into the state constitution that ensures restrictions on contributions and spending are unquestionably allowed at all levels of government. The measure also allows rules requiring campaigns to be transparent about how political ads are funded, and about contributions and spending in general.
According to Multnomah County, its elections division will begin implementing the contribution limits moving forward and more information will be posted in the coming weeks on the elections division campaign finance webpage.