Candidate-Controlled Ballot Measure Committees: Corruption Potential?

Candidate-controlled ballot measure committees arguably represent a legal gray area. They live somewhere in between candidate campaigns and ballot measure campaigns. The Supreme Court has said that contributions to candidates can lead, or at least appear to lead, to corruption and can therefore be limited. The Court has also said that contributions to ballot measure committees cannot lead, or cannot appear to lead, to corruption because there is simply no one to corrupt. But what about those committees which are controlled by candidates?

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On the one hand, these ballot measure committees are separate from candidate campaigns. Their purpose, at least ostensibly, is related to the passage of a ballot measure, not a candidate. (But it is important to note that these committees can be formed to support proposals which may or may not ever make their way to the ballot).

On the other hand, it strains common sense to believe that candidates who control these committees are not aware of the identity of contributors, and would not in some cases feel predisposed to express their gratitude for contributions. Under this view, the ability to give unlimited sums to these ballot measure committees represents a huge loophole in our state's system of contribution limits.

The Sacramento Bee recently published a piece detailing how committees use campaign contributions. It shows that contributions are sometimes used for questionable purposes, such as out-of-state fundraisers, contributions to non-profit organizations, and even a legislator's tuition. However, it is also the case that not all donations to candidate controlled ballot measure committees raise red flags.

Given the current legal landscape, it seems highly unlikely that states and localities will be able to impose limits on contributions to these candidate controlled ballot measure committees. The most practical step is to impose robust transparency and disclosure provisions. Such provisions can provide the public (and members of the press) with vital information about money given and spent to influence our campaigns and elected officials -- and can also act to deter bad behavior.