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Campaign Finance Laws

In the modern era, through a combination of legislation and initiated acts, the state of Arkansas has developed a system of campaign finance laws for state elections. While critics charge that the system has problematic holes within it that allow money to unduly influence policymakers’ decisions, it is a system that is now in the mainstream of American states and is generally strong in terms of the disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.

Such contributions and expenditures were completely unregulated in Arkansas until the mid-1970s, when an initial campaign finance law was passed (Act 788 of 1975). This came a year after the first major federal campaign finance legislation was passed following the Watergate scandal in which quid pro quo corruption was uncovered, involving large contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign tied to later administrative actions.

Act 788 was modeled on the federal legislation in the limitations it placed on contributions and its requirement of disclosure of such campaign expenditures. One major deviation from federal law was the fact that corporations were allowed to make contributions to campaigns in the state. Because multiple corporations were often controlled by one individual or family, this became a way for some to have disproportionate influence over campaign spending in the state. Under the legislation, the Secretary of State’s Office was charged with collecting such information from candidates and political parties and making the data available to the public.

In 1996, an initiated act that sharply revised Arkansas’s campaign finance laws was passed by an overwhelming vote of the people (66.2 percent). Act 1 capped individual contributions to statewide candidates at $300 and those to state legislative candidates at $100. It also provided a $50 per taxpayer state tax credit for a contribution to a state campaign. The sharp limits on contributions were declared unconstitutional by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a suit filed by a coalition of state business groups, who successfully argued that the limits infringed on their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. The tax credit provisions of the initiative remained in place, however.

A multifaceted 2014 state constitutional amendment was passed that further reshaped campaign finance laws in the state. Amendment 94 (which also extended legislative term limits, created a citizens’ commission to propose changes to the pay of elected officials, and altered the rules related to lobbying) prohibited corporations from making contributions to candidates for state office. While it limited the role of money in elections in this way, it also reaffirmed the legislature’s power to alter the amount of maximum campaign contributions. In the next legislative session following passage of Amendment 94, the Arkansas General Assembly increased the contribution limits for all state offices to $2,700 per election and also created a mechanism through which the maximum would be increased for inflation each election cycle.

In 1990, an initiated act—which followed on a related 1988 governmental ethics initiative also promoted by Governor Bill Clinton—had established the five-member Arkansas Ethics Commission as the enforcement agency for all laws related to the conduct of campaigns in the state. The five members of the commission are appointed in staggered terms by the governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the president pro tem of the state Senate, and the speaker of the state House of Representatives.

Though the Arkansas Ethics Commission has the power to impose hefty ?nes, ?le misdemeanor charges, or turn over cases to local prosecutors, over time it has generally relied on the public chastisement that accompanies the release of letters of reprimand. However, in recent years, the commission has shown a willingness to be more assertive in such cases. In 2013, for instance, state Senator Paul Bookout of Jonesboro (Craighead County) was reprimanded and fined $8,000 for four violations related to improper campaign contributions; he ultimately resigned and pled guilty in a federal prosecution.

In addition to the limited enforcement of laws on the books, several other challenges exist for campaign finance law in Arkansas. First, while disclosure is fairly expansive in the state, candidates are not required to file such records in a searchable format, often making it onerous for the general public and the media to understand fully the sources of candidates’ campaign funding.

Second, political action committees (PACs) are an important source of campaign funding in Arkansas and are often camouflaged behind innocuous or altruistic labels so that it is not immediately apparent who the interest behind them is. These include PACs with such names as Arkansans for Arkansas and Arkansas First.

Finally, if groups engaging in independent expenditures to promote candidates for office in the state avoid the use of so-called magic words that explicitly reference elections (“vote for,” “elect,” “vote against,” or “defeat,” for example), such spending operates outside of the regulated campaign finance system entirely, making it difficult to know the identity of contributors trying to influence the outcome of elections in which such “dark money” plays a central role. In the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, campaign spending by such groups on several races—especially races for the Arkansas Supreme Court—became a topic of particular public concern.

For additional information:
Blair, Diane D., and Jay Barth. Arkansas Politics and Government: Do the People Rule? 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Hammersly, Lisa. “Cash & the Court.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 24, 2016, p. 1A, 6A-8A.

Kinney, Laura, ed., Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2013–14. Brennan Center for Justice, 2015. http://newpoliticsreport.org/ (accessed August 12, 2016).

Ramsey, David, “Arkansas Gets D- Grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation.” Center for Public Integrity. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/11/09/18337/arkansas-gets-d-grade-2015-state-integrity-investigation (accessed August 12, 2016).

“Rules on Campaign Finance and Disclosure.” Arkansas Ethics Commission. Revised, 2005. http://www.sos.arkansas.gov/rulesRegs/Arkansas%20Register/2005/aug_2005/153.00.05-002.pdf (accessed August 12, 2016).

Jay Barth
Hendrix College

Last Updated 8/19/2016

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