US appeals court strikes down state law restricting election donations

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] that a Washington law banning political action committees from taking donations of $5,000 or more in the last three weeks before an election is unconstitutional. The law was challenged by Family PAC [official website] on three grounds, including two that require political action committees to report on the identities and occupations of contributors. Only the three-week time limitation was found to be an unconstitutional violation of the right to free speech under the First Amendment [text]. Washington Attorney General Robert McKenna [official website] argued the law was designed to protect citizens who take advantage of a widely used vote-by-mail system, in which voters mail in their ballots 18 days before the election. The court, however, said a 21-day ban on accepting donations is not "narrowly tailored" to suit the governmental interest in "informing the electorate." The court also concluded that, "The fact that voters have access to ballots earlier than before, and that they may choose to vote before all the election debate is in fact over, is not a sufficient reason to save this statute."

Washington has been involved in multiple lawsuits involving elections this year. In November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the names of signers of a petition to abolish a domestic partnership law could be released [JURIST report] because it was not a violation of the First Amendment or unreasonably dangerous to do so. A US district court also ruled in January on the constitutionality of Washington's primary election system [JURIST report]. The court held that the system was constitutional because it would not confuse a reasonable voter, as plaintiffs said it would.

 

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