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A Multnomah County judge ruled that the campaign finance limits are legal under the U.S. Constitution.

FILE - Ballots wait to be counted at the Multnomah County Elections office in 2020.
Multnomah County's campaign finance limits do not violate the U.S. Constitution, a judge says.

It's been a long road since 88.6% of county voters approved the $500 cap to contributions from individuals and political action committees in November 2016.

The rule, which applies to the county's elected commission and auditor, spawned a five-year-long court battle after lawyers for the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Portland Business Alliance, and Associated Oregon Industries argued the limits violated the Oregon Constitution. The trade groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the judge's ruling.

The Oregon Supreme Court declared the caps OK under the state Constitution in April 2020, tossing out the previous legal standard known as Vannatta v. Keisling. But the court also sent the case back down to a Multnomah County judge tasked with deciding if the rules broke the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee for freedom of speech.

On Aug. 24, Judge Eric Bloch did just that: giving the limits a clear thumbs up.

"The evidence provided," Bloch wrote in his 16-page order, "is sufficient here to support important government interest in deterring actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption through the enactment of a campaign contribution limitation."

Particularly compelling evidence, Bloch wrote, was provided by former Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn, who attested that her own donors attempted to tip the scales — making clear how they expected her to vote on certain matters, and occasionally withholding cash when she went the other way.

"The larger the donor, in some cases, the more influence they expected to have," Linn said. "When sometimes I did not agree, I lost their future support."

Multnomah County's Elections Division said in a statement that it will implement the campaign limits for all future elections and will promulgate detailed regulations within the next few weeks. Voters may not notice much of a difference, however, as all candidates for office have abided by the money limits since 2018, according to lawyer Dan Meek.

Meek led the court case defending the legality of the county's limits. But as Portland voters may remember, just because the law is on the books doesn't automatically mean that the rules are being enforced.

And if a candidate doesn't follow the caps in the future?

"What will happen is that Seth Wooley will file a complaint and appeal to the court," said Meek, referring to a fellow activist who has three open cases against Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and his aide Sam Adams at present.

While the donor rules are in place, there's still no limit on how much non-affiliated parties can spend to influence elections — though these independent expenditures are supposed to be tracked in a state database — due to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United.

"When the other side is the side of big money, the struggle never ends," Meek said.

Zane Sparling
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