It could have seemed like a singular act of defiance to abolish super PACs in one Florida town. Members of the City Council in St. Petersburg approved 6-1 today a motion to consider an ordinance that would limit the amount donors can give to groups that support or oppose candidates in local elections.
The ordinance, if passed later this year, would directly affect only elections in St. Petersburg. But it’s part of a far-reaching legal strategy to reduce the influence of money in politics by abolishing super PACs—groups that can take unlimited amounts of money from donors to spend in political campaigns—at the national level.
“This is a serious issue in our country and it has a corrosive effect on our elections and in our democratic process,” said Darden Rice, vice chair of the City Council. “But we are going to have to tackle it on all levels—from our city halls all the way up to the Supreme Court.”
The ordinance challenges super PACs’ legal foundation, which includes the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. There, the court ruled that corporations and unions have a right to free speech, just like individual people, and that campaign donations are a form of protected speech. That decision set the stage for a flood of corporate money into U.S. elections.
Rice’s ordinance doesn’t directly challenge Citizens United. But it does defy SpeechNow.org v. Federal Elections Commission, in which a Washington, D.C., court of appeals interpreted Citizens United to mean that there should be no limits on political contributions to independent groups that support or oppose political candidates. That’s how we ended up with the super PACs that are spending tens of millions of dollars in the 2016 election season.
Rice’s ordinance challenges that decision by limiting the amount a contributor can give to an independent group to $5,000—the same limit that existed before the ruling.
“Our votes mean nothing now because the only day [elected officials] need us is the day we vote,” said Rae Claire Johnson, leader of the Tampa Bay branch of the nonprofit group American Promise. “The very next day they are beholden to the big-money interests that got them in office, so our interests and desires are not being supported.”
American Promise is just one of the groups that collaborated with Rice on the proposed ordinance. Others include Free Speech for People, a nonprofit that works to improve American democracy, and the League of Women Voters. Legal advisers at these groups spent about six months hammering out the proposal’s language.
“It very well could be a game changer,” said Rice, a councilwoman for St. Petersburg since 2013 and a resident of the city for nearly 20 years.
The big strategy
Political action committees existed before the SpeechNow.org decision, but it provided the opportunity to create new and bigger PACs. These are the ones that have been criticized by campaign reformers across the nation in the past six years, since the Citizens United decision.
“What these super PACs can do is gather in money from any source—unions, corporations, rich individuals—and there is no limit to the money they can gather in,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida.
Scott Greytak, a lawyer with the group Free Speech for People, says that decision has damaged American democracy—including at the local level.
“If St. Petersburg does it, hopefully other cities would do it, too.”
“The folks in St. Petersburg are aware this is not just something that happens in presidential and congressional elections,” said Greytak, who helped develop the ordinance. “This is something that more and more is coming to local elections, and you see a lot of super PAC activity all around the state of Florida.”
Although the legal experts who worked on the ordinance believe it will stand up in court if challenged, they also expect lawsuits if the City Council passes it. Greytak anticipates that those who benefit from unlimited super PAC spending will be the ones to challenge the ordinance.
“If this law is challenged, St. Petersburg could provide a test case that, in time, could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “It could have national resonance for communities all across the country who are struggling to keep big money from poisoning their elections.” And, although Rice’s ordinance could be upheld without changing Citizens United, Greytak says the court could take the opportunity to revisit that case and reach a different conclusion.
Because of the vacancy in the Supreme Court, some scholars believe the timing might be just right for that approach.
“If we have a replacement justice who takes that seat and has a different view of campaign finance, that is a whole different world because then the majority is 5-4 the other way,” said Torres-Spelliscy. “A lot depends on who takes that seat and when.”
The plan to change campaign finance rules by bringing a fresh case to the Supreme Court joins other strategies to limit the power of money in elections. So far, 17 states have called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the issue, which would then provide a foundation for the overturn of Citizens United. Meanwhile, groups like Represent.Us have focused on passing local and state laws, tallying wins in New Jersey, Florida, and Oregon.
Will other cities follow?
A Supreme Court fight isn’t the only potential impact of St. Petersburg’s proposed rule change.
“Personally, one of the reasons why I think this ordinance is important is because if St. Petersburg does it, hopefully other cities would do it, too,” said Johnson from American Promise, who’s been involved in getting the word out about the ordinance.
And of course, this is happening while St. Petersburg City Council is debating the city’s everyday business.
“We don’t know yet how exactly we are going to work out our local rules on ride-sharing or Airbnb, or whether or not we are going to put money into a new baseball stadium,” said Rice. “But we know that for sure we want to have robust, sincere, and real conversations with the community and … what we don’t want is having those conversations corrupted by the influence of big money.”
The ordinance will now move on to the Committee of the Whole to be debated further in September.