Elections leaders provided an update to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Nov. 16, on the progress of the County’s campaign finance program. The program continues to move forward after a much-anticipated Multnomah County Circuit Court decision on Aug. 23, 2021, validated the County’s contribution limits under federal law.
The informational briefing — covering campaign contributions limits and disclosure requirements for elected offices, including Multnomah County Chair, Commissioners, Sheriff and Auditor — comes nearly five years to the date since voters passed Measure 26-184, which incorporated new campaign finance provisions into the County Charter.
Tuesday’s briefing also provided clarity on enforcement and other provisions of the program, such as when a person becomes a candidate for purposes of the County’s campaign finance provisions for the designated offices.
Evolution of Campaign Finance in Multnomah County (constitutional challenges)
Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott walked board members through the evolution of the County’s program, which began to take shape in 2016 when voters approved Measure 26-184 with staggering support at 88.6 percent.
In 2017, the Board of County Commissioners adopted an ordinance enacting provisions of the measure into Multnomah County Code, but the County initiated a validation proceeding to get the Court's opinion on whether the new limits were constitutional, said Scott.
“The initial take of the court was that the limits of the new law and the disclosure rules were unconstitutional,” said Scott. “But the County appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile, voters in the City of Portland in November 2018 passed a similar measure that was also taken to court. In that case, the Court held that the City’s limits were unconstitutional, but validated the City’s disclosure requirements, said Scott. That led the Board to pass an ordinance codifying disclosure provisions that more closely aligned with the City of Portland’s in 2019, he explained.
On April 23, 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the County’s contribution limits were constitutional under the Oregon Constitution. However, it ruled that the County’s expenditure limits were invalid.
The Court remanded the case to the Multnomah County Circuit Court to decide the validity of the County’s contribution limits under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, said Scott.
And on Aug. 23, 2021, an opinion issued by Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bloch concluded the County’s campaign contribution limits are constitutional and valid under the First Amendment.
The Elections Division, which administers the program, “began working with the County Attorney’s Office to make updates incorporating necessary changes to implement the courts’ rulings,” said Scott.
Today, an overview of campaign finance alongside important information and Frequently Asked Questions for Multnomah County candidates, contributors, potential contributors, individuals, nonprofits, corporations and more can be found on the Election Division’s website.
The division, in partnership with the County Attorney’s Office, created the program with a goal to educate and enforce the newly-operable limits, explained Scott.
As the 2022 election approaches, the division is moving quickly to:
- Produce and share necessary changes with candidates and the public.
- Prioritize education over punitive actions to achieve clean, compliant elections.
- Learn from peer jurisdictions, such as the City of Portland.
“We’ve been grateful to the City Auditor’s Elections staff,” said Scott. “They were able to move forward with their program in April 2020 and shared a lot of lessons from their experience going through the 2020 election cycle with contribution limits and disclosure requirements in place.”
“And we are in the process of hiring a full-time program administrator that will take us through implementation of our education and enforcement program through the 2022 election cycle.”
How it works
Campaign finance reform in Multnomah County only applies to Multnomah County elected public offices, including Multnomah County Chair, Commissioners, Sheriff and Auditor, Scott reminded board members.
“They do not apply to ballot measures or any other contests held within Multnomah County,” said Scott.
Filing for County Office, announcing a campaign publicly or expressing consent to be named as candidate are several examples of actions that Scott gave to the board of when a person actually becomes a candidate for purposes of the County’s campaign finance rules.
Soliciting, receiving and accepting, or spending funds to win Multnomah County elected public office, or being an officeholder subject to a recall petition, also apply.
See the Election Division’s Frequently Asked Questions for full details.
Candidates and candidate committees may only accept contributions of $500 or less from individuals and political committees. Contributions of any amount from other entities, such as corporations, partnerships and limited liability companies (LLCs) to candidates or their campaigns are prohibited under County rules, said Scott.
The one exception to the $500 limit is for “Small Donor Committees” — a special kind of political committee recognized in Multnomah County Charter and Code — which cannot accept contributions of more than $101 from an individual contributor per calendar year.
“Small Donor Committees are the exception and there’s no limit to how much it can contribute to a candidate or candidate committee.”
Also, anything of value provided by the candidate themselves to their own candidate committee, or to support their own election or nomination to the designated public offices, is not subject to the County’s contribution limits.
Under the County’s campaign finance regulations, both the contributor and the candidate or the candidate committee are liable for transactions that exceed the contribution limits.
But the Elections Division is adding a “safe harbor” provision to their rule to focus on education over punitive actions, said Scott.
Unlawful contributions that are refunded or declined by a candidate within 30 days or seven days, depending on how close the contribution was to the election date, Scott said, “fall under the safe harbor provision.”
Donors may also seek safe harbor with a request for reimbursement of the unlawful contributions within 30 days from the date of the contribution.
“We anticipate questions from candidates, campaigns and organizations that normally give money to fund campaigns,” said Scott.
“We’re publishing an FAQ on our website that we anticipate will grow as we receive more questions. We’re encouraging candidates and contributors to reach out to us with questions. If we don’t have the answer, we’ll research it and decide the best way to advise those folks,” said Scott.
Any communications, such as printed, digital, electronic or broadcast communications in support or opposition to a Multnomah County candidate and funded with over $304 — with few exceptions — must contain a prominent disclosure of the “true original sources of funding for the communication,” Scott went on.
The disclosure is essentially the “paid for by” section that goes on a communication. The $304 amount reflects incremental increases every two years with adjustments for inflation.
“These requirements apply to Multnomah County candidates and their campaigns, as well as communications created in support or opposition of Multnomah County candidates by individuals, PACs, nonprofits and other entities.”
The disclosure requirement also applies on social media for communications funded with more than $304. Administrative rules provide different options for how to satisfy those disclosure requirements on social media, recognizing that there may be character limits or other constraints.
This is also modeled after the City of Portland’s program, Scott said.
Scott laid out the tiered system of disclosures that can apply to communications during an election cycle. Again, disclosures apply to both candidates and candidate committees as well as political committees, nonprofits or other entities.
Please read Frequently Asked Questions for information on Disclosure Requirements.
“For candidates and candidate committees, our contribution limit requirements make this a fairly simple case,” said Scott. Disclosure requirements are likely to be less onerous for candidates who comply with the contribution limits.
The program creates a complaint-driven process where the Elections Director investigates whether a violation has occurred. Complaints must be submitted by email, in writing or using an online form, and cannot be anonymous.
The subject of a complaint has 10 days to respond.
The Election Director may issue a letter of education for the first violation or violations where there is no monetary benefit. Otherwise, civil penalties can occur and escalate from two to 20 times the amount of the unlawful contribution, expenditure or independent expenditure.
The County does not provide legal advice, but the Elections Division website and an email address are available to those who have questions.
The program also creates the opportunity for the Elections office to reconsider decisions before they would otherwise be appealed to the Circuit Court.
“This is direct learning from the City of Portland,” said Scott. “They changed their rules to allow for this because there was no other option than to go to court, and that was not a benefit to the administrator and the complainant.”
“We are working to make this complicated system as understandable as possible for everyone who has to use it,” said Scott.