According to the U.S. Supreme Court, campaign contributions are a form of political “speech” and are therefore protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the government may restrict such contributions only if doing so serves a compelling state interest. Currently, the only interests that the Court has recognized as sufficiently compelling to justify restrictions on political spending are preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Though sometimes presented as a single interest, the prevention of actual corruption and the prevention of the appearance of corruption are not the same. The reason the government has an interest in preventing actual corruption is obvious. The Court has explained the related but distinct interest in preventing the appearance of corruption by appealing to the importance of maintaining public confidence in the electoral process. If a certain campaign finance activity creates the appearance of corruption, then ordinary citizens may start to view their political participation as futile, and may lose faith in the integrity of elections. Because Congress has an interest in preventing this erosion of public trust, the government can regulate campaign finance activities that the public perceives as corrupt, even when those activities are not associated with actual corruption.
At least that’s what the Court has said. In practice, however, the Court has often failed to apply the appearance of corruption standard in a way that serves these objectives. This is nowhere clearer than in the Court’s recent decision in Federal Election Commission (FEC) v. Cruz. The case concerned a federal law that prohibited a candidate from using post-election campaign donations to repay more than $250,000 of personal loans that the candidate made to his or her campaign prior to the election. The government justified this law partly on the grounds that it prevented the appearance of corruption. After all, when a candidate uses donations to repay personal loans, the donor’s contributions go straight into the candidate’s pockets; the public could easily view such payments as fostering corruption. In support of this argument, the government pointed to a public opinion poll in which 81% of respondents thought it was “likely” or “very likely” that donors who make post-election contributions expect a “political favor” in return. Additionally, the government cited an academic study that found—on the basis of over three decades of empirical evidence—that politicians with campaign debts are “significantly more likely” than debt-free politicians to switch their votes after receiving contributions from special interests.
This evidence, on its face, would seem to support the government’s claim that the limit on using post-election donations to repay a candidate’s large personal loans furthers its compelling interest in preventing the appearance of corruption. However, the Court’s majority opinion dismissed the government’s appearance-based argument in a brief passage with relatively little sustained analysis, apparently treating the flaws in the government’s arguments as self-evident. The Court’s dismissive attitude to the government’s evidence in this case indicates a worrisome approach to the appearance-of-corruption issue more generally.