Indiana has the least restrictive campaign finance laws in the nation, according to a new study.
The Coalition for Integrity, a nonprofit that focuses on corruption and transparency, released its first-ever State Campaign Finance Index this summer. The index examines the laws of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including campaign coordination regulations and spending limits.
On a scale of zero to 100, the top-ranked state — Washington — scored 83.99. Indiana was dead last at 38.33 — nearly 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 Integrity Coalition, said she was surprised Indiana did so poorly. Shah said the organization began working on state-level issues in 2018, the same year she started as president and CEO.
The coalition released the results of the study on June 21. Previous indices have focused on state ethics, including the SWAMP Index: States with Anti-Corruption Measures for Civil Servants.
Much of the campaign finance discussion centers on federal law, Shah said, but the organization wanted to shed light on how that money is regulated at the state level.
“With the most recent decisions from the Supreme Court, the states have more power,” she said. “They can affect our lives more intimately than ever before. State officials play a critical role in creating public policy.
Several elected Hoosiers declined or did not respond to requests for comment on the study. The respondent, State Representative Tim Wesco, said he was concerned about the search.
“I look forward to reviewing the report’s full findings, but it’s clear they overlooked several oversight measures in our election laws,” the Osceola Republican said in a statement. “I have asked my staff to bring this to their attention and ask them to reconsider our score in light of their error.”
Wesco added that he thinks the state’s campaign finance laws are “clear and transparent.”
“The Campaign Finance Database is an accurate representation of reports filed with the Indiana Electoral 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 any emails from the Wesco representative or his staff,” Shah said in a statement. “As you know, as part of our methodology, we sent all state reports to state election offices for review and comment before finalizing the report and also before it was released. We have incorporated the feedback we received. In total, we received comments from 29 states.
She added that the Integrity Coalition did its best to incorporate all relevant comments before completing the index, and that the organization contacted the Indiana Electoral Division before releasing the study.
One notable area of Indiana law that Shah considers insufficient is the absence of a state cap on individual contributions. The state, however, has caps on corporate and union contributions directly to candidates.
Conservative attorney Jim Bopp Jr. has an opposing view on the matter. The Terre Haute attorney considers this lack of regulation of individual contributions one of the best parts of Indiana’s campaign finance laws.
“We have reports by candidate and by political party, … but we don’t have contribution limits, so any individual can donate an unlimited amount to a particular candidate,” Bopp said. “It’s reported, so voters can decide.”
He criticized federal contribution limits, which he said led to the funding of non-candidate spending campaigns such as super PACs — or political action committees.
“The result is that the rich are funding super PACs and circumventing disclosure because the candidate doesn’t report super PAC spending as part of their campaign — because they don’t,” Bopp said. “They’re here on the side doing all kinds of commercials.”
Bopp has represented many high-profile Republican officials and conservative causes, including serving as legal counsel to the National Anti-Abortion Committee for the Right to Life.
He has filed more than 100 lawsuits challenging federal and state campaign finance laws, some of which have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most notable of these was Bopp’s win in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.
In the landmark 2010 case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, represented by Bopp. The narrow 5-4 ruling overturned restrictions on independent spending campaigns on free speech grounds.
Bopp said the First Amendment provides “essential protections in order to allow citizens, the average citizen, to participate in our democratic government.”
A lawsuit filed by Bopp on behalf of the Indiana Right to Life Victory Fund — the group’s PAC — challenges Indiana’s limits on contributions to independent spending campaigns.
A press release from Bopp’s law firm after the lawsuit was filed last fall claims that the monetary sections of the code “act as a complete ban on corporate contributions to PACs for independent expenses.”
Bopp said he would like to see the state “explicitly recognize” the legality of super PACs in state elections.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, has served at Indiana’s House since 2002. He sits on the Elections and Allocations Committee, a body he chaired when his party held the House.
Fifteen years ago, Pierce tried to address state campaign finance laws, he said, but there ‘wasn’t much interest’ from the Senate. controlled by the GOP. He said the current laws were put in place “probably around the time of Watergate” and haven’t been scrutinized 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 at the cutting edge of finding a way to move the campaign finance system away from big donors and more into small donors.
Then came Citizens United, which opened the door to more spending from independent spending campaigns. Pierce said subsequent court rulings have “complicated efforts” to address money in politics.
He argued that Indiana Republicans were not looking to change the system because they were the ruling party.
“I think because the system serves them well — when you’re in the majority, more donors will contribute to you because you control what happens to their bills,” Pierce said. “There is a clear return on investment when you give to the majority party.”
Pierce said he believes the path to campaign finance reform is to educate voters on the issue and for voters to make it a “front-and-center” issue on Election Day. But that can be difficult when there are other burning issues on the minds of voters.
“The public needs to be aware of the problem, and they need to make it a priority, so that the ruling party starts to see that if they don’t do something, there will be a backlash in the next election,” Pierce said. “You have to show that the issue has political power.”