The Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Multnomah County campaign donation limits approved by voters in a 2016 ballot measure are permissible under Oregon law. That means candidates for office in Multnomah County will now be limited to contributions of $500 per individual donor for each race.
Deborah Scroggin, Portland’s city elections officer, said it’s “too early to tell” how the Court’s ruling will apply to candidates on the ballot for the May 2020 election, including Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“I think everyone, including the city attorneys who argued the case, are still digesting the Court’s ruling and how that affects our actions right now,” Scroggin added.
Wheeler has taken donations up to $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from organizations during the current election cycle. He’s faced complaints for violating the similar campaign finance measure passed in Portland in 2018—along with mayoral race opponent Ozzie Gonzalez—but the City found they were not at fault because the legality of those limits were under consideration by the state Supreme Court. (Wheeler was penalized for separate campaign finance violations unrelated to donation limits earlier this week.)
After the Multnomah County ballot measure passed in 2016, it was immediately challenged in court by business interest groups on the grounds that it violated Oregon’s free speech laws. The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, which heard the case last November. From the Mercury’s previous reporting on the case:
Oregon’s campaign finance laws are currently among the most lax in the country, with no limits on donation amounts for individuals or political action committees, or PACs. Speaking before the Oregon Supreme Court, attorneys representing Multnomah County and Honest Elections, the organization responsible for the ballot measures, argued that imposing limits on campaign donations would not inhibit Oregon’s constitutional free speech laws for three reasons:
1. Candidates don’t need funding in order to speak freely and campaign.
2. Candidates can still raise unlimited amounts of money; there’s just a cap on how much money each donor can contribute.
3. Contribution limits don’t place any new parameters on how candidates use the money they receive.
… Attorney Gregory Chaimov argued on the behalf of business interest groups— the Portland Business Alliance, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, and Associated Oregon Industries—that oppose the contribution caps. Chaimov argued that two previous Oregon Supreme Court rulings, known as Vannatta 1 and Vannatta 2, had already “rejected” the premise that the rules around campaign donations ought to change based on dollar amount.
In its decision announced Thursday, the Court agreed that allowing caps on contribution limits would violate Vannatta 1—but that its decision in that previous case ought to be overruled because it had “strayed from the Court's usual approach” in how it treats campaign contributions.
The Court’s decision to overrule Vannatta 1 and uphold the county’s new contribution limits was unanimous. But the case will be sent back to Multnomah County Circuit Court to consider one question left unanswered by the Court: whether the limits violate the First Amendment.
However, the Court noted in its decision that the First Amendment does allow for “limits on the regulation of campaign contributions,” based on previous United States Supreme Court rulings.
Honest Elections, the organization that drafted the county measure and fought the measure's appeal in court, say they're not worried about the circuit court undermining the decision, based on past court precedent. And, while it's unclear how this ruling will impact the current election, representatives with Honest Elections say they plan on immediately holding all candidates to these standards.
"The $500 contribution limits in Multnomah County and Portland are now in effect and fully enforceable," said Honest Elections organizer and attorney Jason Kafoury, in a morning press release. "We will seek enforcement of those limits."