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ACLU Challenges “Inequitable” Campaign Finance Law on Behalf of Moderate Party

Posted: June 22, 2010|Category: Rights of Candidates

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For the second time in little more than a year, the Rhode Island ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, challenging the constitutionality of a state law that discriminates against new political parties. Calling the law “unfair, inequitable and constitutionally infirm,” the lawsuit, filed today by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark Freel, seeks to overturn a statute that allows residents to make a donation on their tax return to political parties through a “nonpartisan account,” but excludes new parties from the disbursement.

Taxpayers are permitted to make a political party “contribution” on their tax return in the amount of $5 ($10.00 for married couples), toward the public financing of the electoral process. The taxpayer can designate receipt of the first $2 of the contribution ($4 for married couples) to a political party of his or her choice. Any donation above that amount, or any donation not specifically designated for a particular party, is allocated to a “nonpartisan account.”

Under the statute, the state pays 5% of funds in the nonpartisan account to the political party then holding each of the four statewide general offices other than Governor (i.e., Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer and Secretary of State). The state distributes the remaining 80% of the funds “to each political party in proportion to the combined number of votes its candidates for governor received in the previous election,” thus freezing out any new political parties from gaining a share of those funds.

Since the formula relies upon the results of an election that is held only once every four years, the suit notes that “with each passing year following such a statewide election, those funds are distributed in accordance with increasingly dated and historic results that do not reflect current political realities.” Further, the formula 'makes no provision for the recognition of, or inclusion of, new political parties and/or independent candidates either in, or subsequent to, an election to which the formula is applied.”

The lawsuit argues that the “exclusion of state-sponsored economic support for one political party lawfully participating in the 2010 general election process, while according such state-sponsored economic benefits and support to other, pre-existing political parties, is inequitable, unfair” and a violation of the Moderate Party’s First Amendment rights. The suit seeks a court order declaring the statute unconstitutional, and a ban on the distribution of any funds in the nonpartisan account unless done in an equitable manner. RI ACLU volunteer attorney Freel said today: “To distribute the money in this way will harm the Moderate Party in its ability to compete fairly in this election. The state of Rhode Island should not subsidize some political parties and exclude others.”

Last year, the RI ACLU successfully represented the Moderate Party in challenging another statute that had barred new political parties from collecting in an off-election year the signatures necessary to gain state recognition as a party.

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