Indiana has the least restrictive campaign finance laws in the country, a new study shows.
The Coalition for Integrity, a nonprofit organization that focuses on corruption and transparency, released its first-ever State Campaign Finance Index this summer. The index examines laws from all 50 states and the District of Columbia – including regulations on campaign coordination and limits on expenditures.
On a scale of zero to 100, the top-ranking state – Washington – scored an 83.99. Indiana was dead last at 38.33 – almost seven points behind 50th-ranked South Dakota.
Neighboring states Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois all finished in the middle of the pack, with respective rankings of 20, 28, 29 and 37.
Shruti Shah, president and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, said she was surprised Indiana scored so poorly. Shah said the organization first started working on state-level issues in 2018, the same year she started as president and CEO.
The coalition released the study results June 21. Previous indices focused on state ethics, including the SWAMP Index: States with Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials.
Much of the discussion on campaign finance is focused on federal law, Shah said, but the organization wanted to shine a light on how that money is regulated at the state level.
“With the most recent Supreme Court decisions, states have more power,” she said. “They can affect our lives more intimately now than ever before. State elected officials play a vital role in creating public policy.”
Multiple elected Hoosiers either declined or did not respond to requests for comment on the study. One who did respond, state Rep. Tim Wesco, said he had concerns about the research.
“I look forward to reviewing the complete findings of the report, but it’s clear they overlooked several oversight measures in our election laws,” the Osceola Republican said in a statement. “I’ve asked my staff to point this out to them and have them reconsider our score in light of their error.”
Wesco added that he believes the state’s campaign finance laws are “clear and transparent.”
“The campaign finance database is an accurate representation of the reports filed with the Indiana Election Division,” Wesco said in a statement. “Campaign finance data is collected by the Indiana Secretary of State, and detailed records are posted online. By law, campaign committees must disclose all contribution, expense, in-kind and loan transactions.”
Shah responded to Wesco’s comments in a statement Thursday.
“I have not received emails from Rep. Wesco or his staff,” Shah said in a statement. “As you know, as part of our methodology, we sent all state reports to the State Election Offices for their review and comment before finalizing the report and also before release. We incorporated the comments we received. In total, we received comments from 29 states.”
She added that the Coalition for Integrity did its “best to incorporate all relevant comments” before finishing the index, and that the organization reached out to the Indiana Election Division before releasing the study.
One notable area of Indiana law Shah views as insufficient is the state’s lack of a cap on individual contributions. The state does, however, have caps on contributions from corporations and unions directly to candidates.
Conservative lawyer Jim Bopp Jr. has an opposing view on the issue. The Terre Haute attorney sees that lack of individual contribution regulation as one of the best parts of Indiana’s campaign finance laws.
“We have reporting by candidates and by political parties, … but we have no contribution limits, so any individual can give an unlimited amount to any particular candidate,” Bopp said. “That is reported, then the voters can decide.”
He criticized federal contribution limits, which he argued drove funding to noncandidate expenditure campaigns such as super PACs – or political action committees.
“The result is that rich people are funding super PACs and getting around disclosure, because the candidate doesn’t report the super PAC spending as part of their campaign – because it isn’t,” Bopp said. “They’re over here on the side doing all sorts of ads.”
Bopp has represented numerous high-profile Republican officials and conservative causes, including serving as legal counsel for the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee.
He has brought more than 100 lawsuits challenging federal and state campaign finance laws, some of which have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The most notable of those was Bopp’s victory in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
In the landmark 2010 case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of conservative nonprofit Citizens United – represented by Bopp. The narrow 5-4 ruling overturned restrictions on independent expenditure campaigns on free speech grounds.
Bopp said the First Amendment offers “critical protections in order to permit citizens, the average citizen, to be involved in our democratic government.”
A lawsuit filed by Bopp on behalf of the Indiana Right to Life Victory Fund – the group’s PAC – is challenging Indiana’s limits on contributions to independent expenditure campaigns.
A news release from Bopp’s law firm after the lawsuit was filed last fall argues currency sections of the code “act as a complete prohibition against contributions from corporations to PACs for independent expenditures.”
Bopp said he’d like to see the state “explicitly recognize” the legality of super PACs in state elections.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, has served in Indiana’s House since 2002. He serves on the Elections and Apportionment Committee, a body he chaired when his party held the House.
Fifteen years ago Pierce attempted to address the state’s campaign finance laws, he said, but there “wasn’t much interest” from the GOP-controlled Senate. He said the current laws were put in place “probably during the time of Watergate” and haven’t been looked at much since.
“During our interim study committee,” Pierce said, “I actually had hearings on the campaign finance system and brought in people from Arizona and Maine who were on the cutting edge of trying to figure out a way to get the campaign finance system away from the big donors and get it more into small donors.”
Then came Citizens United, which opened the door to more spending from independent expenditure campaigns. Pierce said subsequent court decisions have “complicated efforts” to address money in politics.
He argued Indiana’s Republicans aren’t looking to change the system because they’re the party in power.
“I think because the system is serving them well – when you’re in the majority, more donors will contribute to you because you control the fate of their bills,” Pierce said. “There’s a clear return on your investment when you give to the majority party.”
Pierce said he believes the path to campaign finance reform involves educating voters on the issue, and for voters to make it a “top tier” issue come election day. But that can be difficult when there are other hot-button issues at the top of voters’ minds.
“The public has to become aware of the issue, and they have to make it a priority, so the party in control begins to see that if they don’t do something, there’s going to be a backlash in the next election,” Pierce said. “You have to show that the issue has political power.”