Wisconsin election officials acknowledged in federal court Thursday they could not enforce a state law that limits the amount donors can give to all candidates to $10,000 a year, in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The state’s settlement of a lawsuit over the limits — if approved by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman as expected — would also have the effect of allowing donors to give unlimited sums to political parties and political action committees. The state Government Accountability Board, which oversees state election laws, also agreed to pay more than $5,700 in legal fees to millionaire Fred Young Jr. of Racine, who brought the case. Those funds will go to the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which represented Young. The decision comes a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled similar limits are an unconstitutional restriction of the free speech rights of those who make donations to congressional candidates. “I’m very pleased we’ve made one more piece of progress to restoring the First Amendment,” said Young, who sits on the board of the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes limited government.
But Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, predicted the ruling would give the wealthy a bigger voice in elections at the expense of everyday Wisconsinites. His group lobbies for limits on political donations and publicly funding campaigns.
“It’s going to vastly increase the power of a few hundred donors,” McCabe said of the settlement. “They will have a vastly increased capacity to influence elections.
Wisconsin for decades has limited to $10,000 the total amount donors can give to all candidates in a calendar year.
If the settlement is approved by the court, donors would be able to donate to as many candidates as they wanted. However, they still would be able to give only set amounts to individual candidates for each two-year or four-year election cycle — $500 to those for state representative, $1,000 to those for state senator and $10,000 to those for statewide office, such as governor, attorney general and state Supreme Court.