Cato Brief Asks Court to Strike Down Vermont’s Draconian Campaign Laws

Expenditure Limits Insulate Incumbents and Violate First Amendment

March 1, 2006

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The Supreme Court will hear oral argument today in Randall v. Sorrell, a case challenging Vermont’s Act 64, a draconian law that sets extremely low limits on campaign expenditures. (For example, the law bars candidates running for state representative from spending more than $2000 in a race in a single-member district.) The Republican National Committee, among others, has challenged the law as a violation of the First Amendment’s protections for political speech. Vermont, in turn, justifies the Act as a prop to ensure elected officials are responsive to voters. Without the Act, says Vermont, elected officials will waste time soliciting donations from wealthy organizations, time that could be used to listen to constituents.

The Cato Institute filed a brief in the case, joined by the Center for Competitive Politics, the Goldwater Institute, the Institute for Justice, and the Reason Foundation, asking the Court to strike down Act 64. According to Cato senior fellow Mark Moller and Roger Pilon, director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, the Act is a clear violation of free speech rights: Vermont’s justification for the Act is patently absurd. The First Amendment’s protections are most important when candidates are trying to communicate their message to voters. Political speech is essential to a free, healthy democracy. In effect, Vermont’s law is a sop to incumbents. By radically limiting the amount of speech a candidate can buy, Vermont’s law insulates incumbents from tough reelection fights, since the most hotly contested races are also the most expensive. Vermont’s law prevents the very ballot box competition necessary to ensure local officials serve ordinary Vermonters.

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