From the 1880s until just before World War I, Montana was essentially owned by mining companies, and most of all by Anaconda Copper. Money bought political power: An industry mogul openly bribed his way to a U.S. Senate seat; the choice of a state capital was decided by a spending war that saw two rival mining company candidates spend the equivalent of $70 million in today’s dollars to influence just 52,000 voters. It was clear: Montana had a problem.
Then, in 1912, things changed. Voters approved a ban on corporate campaign spending and contributions that was aimed at cleaning up the political process. “The law represented nothing less than the voters taking back a government that belongs to them,” Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said recently, “and only to them.”
And so it was, until the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threatens to dismantle the century-old Montana laws, along with similar measures in 23 other states. The court’s 5-4 decision last month inCitizens United v. Federal Elections Commission made one clear-cut change—it declared any ban on corporate- or union-sponsored political advocacy to be unconstitutional, on the grounds that such advocacy was constitutionally protected political speech. But in practice the decision may do more. It may alter state and local elections across the country in ways the court didn’t discuss.
States such as Montana face a complicated set of problems and a question of basic fairness. Citizens United could serve to lock in place strict limits on the amount of money individuals can spend on campaigns, while giving corporations and labor much broader freedom.
Current Montana law limits contributions from people to $500 for a gubernatorial campaign, $250 for other statewide elections, and $130 for any other office. It limits corporate contributions to zero. Now the ban on corporate spending could be thrown out altogether following a challenge based on Citizens United, with the individual limits, which were unaffected by the decision, remaining untouched.
But this would pose constitutional problems of its own. The court ruled in Citizens United not only that corporations and unions have free speech rights and that spending equals speech, but that speech can’t be regulated based on the identity of the speaker. If Montana ended up limiting individual but not corporate activity, the result could be unconstitutional according to the very language of Citizens United.