A Seattle City Council member may introduce legislation that would stop donors like Amazon from using political-action committees (PACs) to pour money into Seattle elections, and the proposal is backed by national reformers who hope to see such a law upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
They want to challenge the idea that the 2010 Supreme Court case called Citizens United, which opened the door to unlimited independent spending by PACs, also opened the door to unlimited donations to those PACs.
Councilmember M. Lorena González’s legislation would ban donations of more than $5,000 to independent-expenditure PACs in Seattle and would ban donations to such PACs by “foreign-influenced corporations.” The city would almost certainly be sued and would likely be offered pro bono representation.
The $5,000 limit on PAC donations would likely need to overcome a prior ruling by a federal appeals-court panel. But Harvard University scholar Lawrence Tribe is among those backing the proposal, which González intends the council to consider early next year.
“My proposed legislation would send a clear message to those who seek to buy our democracy that our local democratic process is not for sale to the highest bidder,” González said in a statement.
Companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Amazon would be considered foreign-influenced due to their non-U.S. investors, according to John Bonifaz, president of the Free Speech for People advocacy organization and a supporter of the legislation.
Federal law already prohibits foreign individuals and foreign-based corporations from spending in U.S. elections, and Federal Election Commission chair Ellen Weintraub has written to support the part of González’s proposal related to foreign influence.
Right now, independent-expenditure PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts in Seattle as long as they don’t coordinate with candidate campaigns. At the national level, they’re known as super PACs. They’ve shelled out more than $875,000 to support or oppose Seattle City Council candidates this year, not including polling and other overhead costs.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC alone has reported spending more than $375,000 while taking in more than $5,000 in donations from 20 different companies and individuals this year, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, including $200,000 from Amazon, $130,000 from Vulcan, $95,0000 from the Washington Association of Realtors and $50,000 from Expedia.
Independent spending has accelerated in Seattle, with the sum in this year’s primary surpassing the amount in 2015’s primary and general elections.
Wealthy people and deep-pocketed companies are using PACs to circumvent the city’s contribution limits, González said in a letter asking the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) for its opinion on her proposal. Seattle limits donations to candidate campaigns to $500, or $250 when a candidate is participating in the city’s democracy-voucher program, the council member noted.
At a meeting Tuesday, SEEC members declined to immediately issue an opinion. They expressed support for the rules that González’s legislation would establish but said they wanted to know more about the legal issues before taking a position.
St. Petersburg, Fla., passed similar legislation in 2017 that has not yet been challenged in court.
“Unlike St. Petersburg, someone will sue Seattle, I have no doubt,” SEEC member Eileen Norton said, suggesting statewide legislation would be better. “I’d be willing to bet my mortgage on that one.”
“My proposed legislation … would impose reasonable limitations,” González wrote in her letter. “Setting a cap … means we get closer to ‘getting big money out of politics’ and achieve our goals of civic engagement for all.”
Banning donations by foreign-influenced corporations would ensure “local elections are funded by constituents and not foreign parties,” she added.