Can The Federal Government Regulate State And Local Campaign Finance?


Close-up of assorted Canadian paper currency

Federal law prohibits contributions by foreigners to federal political candidates. The thing is, federal law also prohibits contributions by foreigners to state and local candidates.

That has become an issue in North Dakota as Democrats have made a stink over a few donations by foreigners to the recent campaigns of Governor Jack Dalrymple and state Senator Lonnie Laffen (R-Grand Forks) as well as to the North Dakota Oil Political Action Committee.

The number of contributions were few, and the dollar amounts relatively small, but Democrats have cried foul demanding an opinion from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on the legality of the contributions and filing a complaint with the FEC.

I should point out that North Dakota has no laws on the books prohibiting foreign contributions. I’d also point out that all of the contributions at the center of this issue were disclosed as is required. So it’s not like this was a hidden conspiracy to funnel foreign dollars into state campaigns. This was a relatively few contributions which fall into a legal gray area.

Anyway, Stenehjem has now declined to issue an opinion, pointing out that it would be premature to weigh in before the feds do.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Can the federal government regulate political money in state and local campaigns?[/mks_pullquote]

But that brings us back to this question: Can the federal government regulate political money in state and local campaigns?

On one hand, the states are generally free to set their own rules for campaign finance when it comes to state-level races and below. That’s why the State of North Dakota has very different reporting requirements for state candidates than are required of federal candidates.

On the other hand, we are talking about money crossing an international border, so perhaps that makes it a federal issue.

Frankly, I’d rather the feds acknowledge that this is a state matter. Setting aside the debate over whether allowing foreign contributions is good policy, the right to set that policy for state-level and local races should lay with the state and not the federal government.

To that end, I’m disappointed that Stenehjem punted on this issue. I’d like to see him stand up for North Dakota’s sovereignty over this matter, though foreign contributions aren’t something most politicians are likely to champion.

Personally, while I think the existence of foreign contributions in a candidate’s fundraising portfolio should give voters pause, I also don’t think they should be illegal.

Political contributions are the same as political speech, to my mind. Rather than seeking to regulate or limit contributions/speech I prefer transparency.

Instead of prohibition, just require disclosure, and the voters can figure out what to make of it all.