AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Citizens United: Will limitless fundraising mold next Alaska Legislature?

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

It should come as no surprise that Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty is challenging the federal government's "intrusion" into state election laws. Geraghty recently filed a letter of protest in redistricting litigation over requirements under the Voting Rights Act that Alaska obtain federal approval before any changes to state electoral processes. Because of its history of discrimination, Alaska is one of a handful of states required to obtain Department of Justice preclearance on electoral changes.

In a press release announcing the challenge, Geraghty said the U.S. Constitution "does not authorize the federal government to dictate every detail of our elections." Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who is in charge of the Division of Elections, followed Geraghty's lead. "This federal intrusion into our state elections is unnecessary, burdensome, and unconstitutional. Congress has no basis to micromanage Alaska’s elections."

It's just the latest in a long list of issues perceived by the current administration as violating state sovereignty. But another high-profile state sovereignty case before the U.S. Supreme Court over election-related federal edicts wasn't enjoined by the state of Alaska.  

Why didn't Alaska join 23 other states challenging Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission? The decision found that corporations and unions enjoy the same free speech protections as individual Americans to spend unlimited amounts of money for and against political candidates, as long as those groups don't coordinate with candidates.

This year, Montana, citing a long history of corporate influence in its election laws, put its foot down when it came to changing state election laws to conform with Citizens United. A Virginia-based group called American Traditional Partnership challenged. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the state's intransigence. Twenty-two other states, along with the District of Columbia, joined Montana in its challenge to Citizens United. Citing sovereignty issues, among those states were Utah and Idaho.

Geraghty said that he decided against joining the suit. "Outcome of the case is unlikely to affect Alaska's laws because after Citizens United, the Legislature changed Alaska statutes in response to that decision," he said.

He didn't say that Alaska election laws were changed by the Legislature in part based on advisory decisions made by the Attorney General's office. But it's moot, anyway: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down Montana's challenge to Citizens United by issuing what's called a "summary reversal," which means no briefs or oral arguments were delivered.

How Citizens United will work in Alaska this fall

It's noteworthy that Alaska was one of the first states to experience how Citizens United impacted local politics. In 2010, the group Alaskans Standing Together came together to support U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in effort against Joe Miller, who had beat the incumbent in the Republican senatorial primary.

Twelve Alaska Native regional corporations and seven village corporations organized Alaskans Standing Together, a political action committee to which the ANCSA corporations and other business corporations such as GCI, Alaska's major telecom, gave nearly $2 million in corporate political donations to get its girl elected. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, it was legal for Alaskans Standing Together to use a whole lot of corporate money in order to influence the outcome of the general election. And that they did -- Murkowski went on to a historic write-in win.

This fall, 59 of Alaska's 60 legislative seats are up for election. A host of important issues -- including a proposed tax cut worth billions to oil companies in Alaska and the proposed Pebble Mine project in Southwest Alaska, to name a few -- currently divide the electorate. How will unlimited corporate donations impact this fall's vote?

Tim McKeever, who in the past has worked for groups that oppose Pebble Mine, among others, recently received an advisory opinion from Alaska Public Offices Commission about corporate campaign fundraising. The opinion held that a group called Alaskans Deserve Better could solicit unlimited funds in order to support or oppose local and state candidates.

Vince Beltrami, president of Alaska AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor organization, said he has plans. In 2010, he formed a group called Putting Alaskans First, which took advantage of the Citizens United decision in order to support union-friendly candidates.

Last election cycle, Putting Alaskans First raised upward of $50,000, and expects to raise more this cycle. Still, Beltrami said, "There's no way we can compete with the money that comes out of oil industry."

Other groups will likely form. Jason Moore, a spokesman for Make Alaska Competitive Coalition, a group that formed to fight for oil tax breaks, said MACC will be involved in the election -- but not by running ads in support of or against specific candidates. Instead, MACC will focus on issue ads.

Such ads can urge voters to vote against or for a candidate who supports or opposed the oil tax breaks, worth upward of $2 billion per year. But MACC can't specifically mention a candidate's name or otherwise identify a candidate in ads. If it does, the ads would then fall under APOC purview and top campaign contributors would have to be disclosed.

But, in reality, if a candidate gets enough individual contributors, a group may not need to be formed. Individuals are still limited to contributing $500 per year to a candidate.

Already this summer, various fundraisers have packed the Petroleum Club with donors who support oil tax cut-friendly candidates.

Another fundraiser on Monday night was being hosted by John Minge, President of BP Alaska, and Bob Heinrich vice president of finance in ConocoPhillips Alaska, among others. This one is for Bob Roses, who is challenging state Sen. Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. Wielechowski has been one of the most vocal politicians against oil tax reform, and he's a definite target among the oil industry and its allies.

The fundraiser, he said, "goes to show the dominance of big industry here."

Wielechowski doesn't believe that the oil industry can buy itself an Alaska Legislature. He's fighting back, he said, by going door-to-door and talking to people.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com