Campaign Finance and Open Meetings‚ Let's Look at the Law
If you haven’t heard the recent talk about campaign donations and open meetings, you’ve likely been living under a rock. It certainly all sounds scandalous and nefarious – what with allegations or undertones of corporate greed and sleazy political corruption.
However, let’s press pause for a minute and back things up a little to review. Believe it or not, what you’ve heard is going on is not a blatant display of shady dealings. Rather, it is perfectly legal and is a showcasing of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.
With a new year comes new election campaigns. It is important, then, for Springfield businesses to know that it’s perfectly okay to give money to a candidate of their choosing — even openly and with multiple elected officials present — subject to certain limitations, of course. To this end, here’s a helpful guide on political campaign contributions, the legal limits thereto, and the Open Meetings Act.
Campaign contributions are constitutionally protected speech.
The United States Supreme Court classifies campaign contributions as a protected form of speech under the First Amendment. The limitations on these donations has ranged all over the place throughout the years. Rather than provide a lengthy explanation of the various eras, let’s cut to the chase and explore the current status of the law. Thanks to recent developments, we currently find ourselves in an era in which this freedom has been greatly expanded and where campaign contributions limits are very broad in scope.
The modern landscape of campaign contributions has most recently been shaped by two Supreme Court cases known as Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Decided in 2010, Citizens United allowed for unlimited corporate, union, and individual donations to go to super Political Action Committees (“PACs”) and nonprofits, which, in turn, could spend the money either blasting or hyping up candidates. The Supreme Court determined that because PACs are banned from coordinating their spending with the candidates, the unlimited financing is not considered to be a corrupting influence. Citizens United was further extended in 2014 by McCutcheon, whereby the Supreme Court abrogated aggregate contribution caps and instead held that private citizens are permitted to make campaign contributions to as many different candidates and political parties as they want — because doing so is an exercise of free speech.
And, in general, the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment allows citizens to donate to politicians who might be deciding issues of direct or indirect financial interest to those citizens. So unless you’re a federal contractor, there’s nothing improper or illegal about that.
Limits to federal campaign contributions.
In federal elections, individual contributions are permitted, but contributions from corporations (for profit or not-for-profit) and labor unions are not. Shareholders in small businesses (think a mom and pop company) can’t use their corporate accounts to write checks – just their personal accounts. Corporate employee are allowed to make contributions through so-called drawing accounts, which allow them to draw personal funds against salary, profits or other compensation.
According to the Federal Election Committee, the individual contribution limits for the 2017-2018 federal elections are as follows:
• $2,700 per election per candidate or the candidate’s committee. This limit applies separately to each election. Primaries, runoffs and general elections are considered separate elections.
• $5,000 per calendar year to a PAC supporting federal candidates.
• $10,000 per calendar year to a State or local party committee.
• $33,900 per calendar year to a national party committee. This limit applies separately to a party's national committee, House campaign committee and Senate campaign committee.
• $100 in currency (cash) to any political committee. (Anonymous cash contributions may not exceed $50.) Contributions exceeding $100 must be made by check, money order or other written instrument.
Limits to State and local campaign contributions.
Unlike the federal system, Illinois permits campaign contributions from corporations and labor unions. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, the contribution limits for corporate/labor unions in 2017-2018 elections are:
• $11,100 per election cycle per candidate or the candidate’s committee.
• $22,200 per calendar year to a PAC supporting State or local candidates.
• $22,200 per calendar year to a political party committee.
Contribution limits for individuals are:
• $5,600 per election cycle per candidate or the candidate’s committee.
• $11,100 per calendar year to a PAC supporting State or local candidates.
• $11,100 per calendar year to a political party committee.
Elected officials may assemble in public to collect campaign contributions.
“It is the public policy of this State that…the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”
This is the very first sentence of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which was first enacted in 1957 to shine a brighter light on State and local government activities. Noting that the language of the Act strikes a fair balance of the public official’s First Amendment rights of speech and assembly with the public’s right of access to information, the Supreme Court of Illinois observes that “the Act is designed to prohibit secret deliberation and action on business which properly should be discussed in a public forum due to its potential impact on the public.”
Unless otherwise excepted, the Act states that “[a]ll meetings of public bodies should be open to the public”, defining “meeting” to mean “any gathering of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business.” As interpreted by the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, the phrase “discussing public business” does not refer to casual remarks, but to discussions that are deliberately made to reach a decision on a matter of concern to the general public. In other words, what truly controls is why the public officials gather and what they discuss once they have gathered.
Causal comments among elected officials related to matters of general public business generally won’t run afoul of the Act. Why? Because our Supreme Court has stated that it is “designed to prohibit secret deliberation and action on business which properly should be discussed in a public forum due to its potential impact on the public.” Therefore, a gathering of public officials shouldn’t violate the Act if there is “no examining or weighing of reasons for or against a course of action, no exchange of facts preliminary to a decision, no attempt to reach accord on a specific matter of [public] business.”
Said another way, a group of elected officials discussing current topics of interest in a general matter shouldn’t amount to a violation of the Act.