Analysis: Free Speech Wins in Minn. 2014 Election Season

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 24, 2015


Minneapolis, Minn.—An analysis of final campaign finance reports for Minnesota’s 2014 election demonstrates that the Institute for Justice’s recent victory suspending Minnesota’s “special source limit” benefited one or both candidates in half of the state’s legislative and statewide races. By suspending the law, Minnesotans benefited from more political speech.

In May 2014, the Institute for Justice, working on behalf of a coalition of Minnesota candidates and donors, won a First Amendment decision preventing the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board from enforcing Minnesota’s “special sources limit,” as it applies to ordinary citizens who contribute more than half of the individual contribution limit to state political campaigns.

Under the old system, the first few donors were able to contribute twice as much to candidates of their choice as later donors. For state house races this could be as few as the first twelve donors. This restriction placed an unconstitutional cap on the amount of money candidates could use to speak to voters, and forced candidates to spend more time fundraising and less time engaging with the electorate.

“Hearing from candidates is essential to fostering an informed electorate,” said Anthony Sanders, an attorney at the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota office. “Minnesotans have clearly benefitted from the suspension of this unconstitutional cap. Political contributions are essential for free speech. That’s why the First Amendment protects the right to donate to candidates of our choice.”

Since the law was suspended on May 19, 2014, Minnesota’s candidates have had more opportunities to speak to voters because later donors are no longer forbidden from contributing as much as earlier donors. The final reports, released by the Board earlier this month, demonstrate:

  • At least one candidate exceeded the former limit in half of Minnesota’s races, including races for constitutional offices and state house of representatives.
  • Over 30 percent of Minnesota’s house candidates exceeded the former limit.
  • Governor Mark Dayton exceeded the former limit by over $744,000.
  • Several other statewide candidates exceeded the limit by tens of thousands of dollars.

When taken together, candidates who received contributions from “special sources,” which includes individuals who contribute more than half the individual limit, had much more money at their disposal to communicate with voters. If it were not for the court decision, these candidates would have had to return contributions to their supporters.

The Governor, for example, would have had to return thousands of dollars to his donors and not raise a penny more from individuals contributing more than half the individualcontribution limit, that is, morethan $2,000. This would have denied the donors the right to exercise their full First Amendment rights on an equal basis with other donors, and denied the Governor the right to use that money to engage with voters.

The same is true of other candidates. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson exceeded the former limit by over $25,000. Attorney General Lori Swanson also benefitted from the suspension of the law. She exceeded the former limit by over $88,000. Secretary of State Steve Simon similarly exceeded the former limit by more than $87,000.

“Campaign contributions are a venerable form of political speech and association,” said Meagan Forbes, an attorney at the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota office. “These campaign finance reports show voters have enjoyed a greater ability to engage in the political process this election, and candidates have enjoyed a greater ability to communicate with voters.”

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.