NEW REPORT: Common Sense Reforms Can Help Curb Money’s Influence in Local Politics

A new study shows contribution limits can be successful at the local level without often-speculated side effects

Sacramento – California Common Cause has released a new report that debunks an oft-repeated myth: that campaign contribution limits are ineffective at decreasing money in politics and instead lead to increases in independent expenditures.  

The report uses original research on independent expenditures from a sample of medium to large California cities before and after the establishment of a state law that set default campaign contribution limits. Findings illustrate that cities that had implemented contribution limits saw no resulting increase in independent expenditures.

“We know contribution limits are an effective way to help curb money’s influence in our local elections,” said Sean McMorris, California Common Cause’s transparency, ethics, and accountability program manager. “We’re dedicated to pushing the ball forward on campaign finance reform research in California because we know a better future is possible. This report offers a glimpse into what those solutions could look like.”

Critics of campaign finance reform have often argued contribution limits have unintended consequences: rather than reducing the influence of large donors, they simply lead to more independent expenditures, which are less regulated and often less transparent than direct contributions to campaigns. The report published today, authored by graduate student fellow Zoe Klingmann for California Common Cause, shows that this is not necessarily the case. 

The report looks at local independent expenditures before and after the passage of California State Assembly Bill 571 (2019), which set “default” contribution limits for city and county elections across the state. The law did not affect cities and counties that already had their own contribution limits and allows for cities and counties to set their own contribution limits other than the default. Due to AB 571, more than two-thirds of California cities entered the 2022 election cycle with brand-new contribution limits, where previously there had been no limits at all. California Common Cause tracked independent expenditures in cities that saw new contribution limits and in cities that already had contribution limits during both the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Findings showed no evidence that independent expenditures have increased among cities affected by AB 571. At the same time, a comparison group of cities that were unaffected by AB 571 actually saw an increase in independent spending. These findings suggest that the new contribution limits have not led to a change in independent expenditures, though the sample size is small. 

Researchers suggest that more analysis would be required to understand how AB 571 affected individual donors and how lower limits may operate in other contexts, like in state or federal elections, but initial findings suggest that common sense money-in-politics reforms can be attempted without negative, unintended consequences. 

READ: Do Contribution Limits Increase IEs? State Regulation of Local Campaign Finance and its Impact on Independent Expenditures

See More: Money & Influence